The new voice assistant on the iPhone 4S, named “Siri” after the popular iPhone application from the App Store in 2010, has taken the world by great surprise. The new “Virtual Assistant” has proven capable of understanding the context and meaning of a users phrases, and has also been proven to be a better listener at times then some of us men even are today.
One odd element of Siri, when it comes to user interaction though, is that people are actually referring to Siri as a “she” when they talk to it.
Siri answers questions in a part-human, part-robot voice that’s deep, briskly efficient and distinctly female in the United States. By hearing that female voice, many users are sometimes even forgetting that this virtual assistant doesn’t actually have a gender. People describe the app using female pronouns, saying that “She’s smart” and “She got an attitude.” The gender of the virtual assistant even has people asking it questions of a more, sexual nature, such as the “What are you wearing?” question.
What’s great though, is that users are experiencing different answers with questions, allowing people to see the personality placed within the code of this beta software. “She” has responded with answers such as, “Why do people keep asking me this?” or “Aluminosilicate and Stainless Steel. Nice, huh?”
Siri has given people so many personal and “human-like” responses, that a number of sites have popped up all over the web with the sole purpose of showcasing them. Sites like “shitsirisays.tumblr.com” and “stuffsirisaid.com“, which allow users from around the world to submit their own experiences with Siri, and have them posted them live on their site.
This has raised an interesting psychological question: Why are so many computerized systems, “female” voices?
One answer, described by CNN, may lie in biology, as well as a bit of cinematic history:
Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices more pleasing than men’s.
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”
HAL, the homicidal artificial intelligence in “2001: A space Odyssey,” may have scared manufacturers away from male automated voices.
According to a few of CNN’s sources, the use of female voices in navigation dates back to World War II. Women’s voices were put into play in airplane cockpits because they tended to stand out, given all of the male soldiers and pilots. Telephone operators have traditionally been female as well, which you likely had experienced back in the day when calling “the operator” (unless you’re jacked into the Matrix of course… none of those guys ever had a female operator. Tank still did a great job though right?)
Cinema exploits the same basic principles when they cast for voice talent for computer systems in movies. People generally find female voices far more pleasant, and it’s much easier to find a female voice that people will enjoy listening to, than it is to find a man’s. It stands to reason then, that if you want to create an AI character in a film that’s evil, you’d probably want to use a mans (‘Eagle Eye’ is the only film example I can think of that breaks this rule. However, most of the film, you thought the voice was on the good side. Jarvis, from Iron Man, is another amendment to this, but considering the character involved, It makes sense that Tony Stark would converse with a “male” computer system).
HAL was a great example of that in 2001: A space Odyssey,” but there are many more recent examples of this as well. The computer program in “WarGames” was male. Auto from the animated film “Wall-E” as well. And of course, who could forget the famous “Destroy Robinson Family” lines from “Lost in Space?”
It’s not that it’s “evil” necessarily. Mostly, male voices sound more intimidating. It’s just in the tone. It’s psychological fact.
So how was Siri’s voice decided upon? CNN explains a bit further:
The voice of the iPhone 4S grew from a five-year research project that was funded by military agency DARPA and led by SRI International, a Bay Area research institute. The project spawned a company, also called Siri, that launched an iPhone app in February 2010 and was acquired by Apple two months later.
That original Siri voice-to-text app — powered in part by Nuance’s technology — also worked by people speaking commands into their phones, although it didn’t talk back. And it had no gender. In fact, the app was originally conceived to speak in a gender-neutral voice, said Norman Winarsky, vice president of SRI and a co-founder of Siri.
Norman also went on to praise Apple for what they managed to do with Siri, saying:
“What Apple did is absolutely brilliant. The most natural of all human interfaces. They took Siri [the old app from the App Store] and gave it more of a personality. It’s the first real artificial intelligence working in millions of people’s hands.”
Siri isn’t female everywhere though. In fact, France and the United Kingdom have received devices with male voices. Apple declined to comment as to why there is a difference, and many UK users have actually complained about it when they experienced it for the first time, hoping that they soon get the female voice that the United States received.
Many GPS devices and computer text-to-speech programs now offer multiple voice options. Voice-technology experts say, Siri will probably speak in a variety of voices some day as well, although it’s important to note that there is no evidence at all of this being true with the Apple iPhone.
CNN then pressed the question: “Are computerized female ‘assistants’ sexist?”
Not necessarily, said Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
“I think they have to be understood in a broader context in which they’re one small piece,” she wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “Voices intended to convey authority (such as voice-over narration in films) tend to be male. So yes, probably these compliant female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes, not just because they serve the user but because the technology itself is about communication and relationships (areas that women are presumed to be good at).
“I wouldn’t automatically claim any sexism in individual companies’ choices, though. Most such decisions are probably the result of market research, so they may be reflecting gender stereotypes that already exist in the general public.”
Zorach listened to some sound clips of Siri online, then e-mailed back again.
“What’s interesting to me is how they seem to intentionally make her speech sound artificial — they could choose to make her speech more seamless and human-like, but they choose instead to highlight the technology,” she said. “That makes you aware of how high-tech your gadget is.”
High-tech indeed, but that doesn’t mean that its the best it can possibly get. Android devices have had voice control features for quite sometime, far surpassing the capabilities of the previous generation iPhone’s “Voice Controls” feature, which was prompted in a similar way to Siri, by holding down the home button (on the phone) for a couple of seconds until the screen changed, and the phone listened. Siri has changed that functionality completely, and includes so many new abilities that it wouldn’t even be fair to compare it’s uses to the old system.
But it is very fair to compare it to other options on other platforms, which have been said to be the same as Siri. Stay tuned ladies and gentlemen. A new HotTips! exclusive experiment is coming very soon that will put these bits of software head to head.
… and it’ll be interactive, for everyone.
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