It’s important for men like John Legend to voice virtual assistants like Google, Alexa and Siri, too, so that women aren’t always depicted as servants.
Hey Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana — and now, Erica: Why do you have to be female?
Bank of America introduced its customers to Erica in an email this week; their new virtual financial assistant rolling out in June will lock and unlock your debit card, send money to your friends, schedule bill payments, find past transactions and more through the bank’s app. Users will simply activate Erica once the feature becomes available, and can then give voice commands such as, “Erica, lock my debit card” or “Erica, look up my last transaction at Starbucks.”
The problem is, while today’s smart home speakers and virtual assistant apps may be high-tech wonders that can turn on the lights, start our cars, book our appointments and make our calls — but they can also reinforce the dated stereotype of a subservient woman catering to a user’s every whim.
Bank of America didn’t respond to a Moneyish request for comment, beyond noting that “Erica” was taken from the end of the name “Bank of America.” But head of digital banking Michelle Moore said in a press release that, “Everything we do is based on what we hear from our clients: how they want to interact with us and how we can make their financial lives better. Erica delivers on this in many ways, from making it easy for clients to find what they are looking for to providing new and interactive ways to do their banking using voice, text or gesture. Through Erica, we are also delivering personalized solutions at scale by providing insights, such as how you can improve your credit score or create a budget.”
Google took a step in the right direction at its I/O developer conference earlier this month by announcing that its Google Assistant is now available in six new voices, including male — and Grammy-winning musician John Legend will soon be one of them. (Twitter’s favorite couple joked about it: The singer’s wife, Chrissy Teigen, tweeted, “I don’t even need human John anymore,” and Legend replied, “Well. The Google Assistant doesn’t do EVERYTHING.”)
Well. The Google Assistant doesn't do EVERYTHING https://t.co/5qlO1nFhwE
— John Legend (@johnlegend) May 8, 2018
This is a big deal because “our technologies reflect our culture,” Dr. Miriam E. Sweeney, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in digital media, told Moneyish. “And the fact that we end up with female voices, or females portrayed in these various types of service roles, actually does reinforce the feminization of a certain labor force of servitude [like being a personal assistant or working a call center] that is often seen as less skilled, less valuable and that can be paid less.”
These female AI assistants even get sexually harassed, as Wired and Quartz reported — and Apple and Amazon have only recently updated Siri and Alexa to shut down users who make sexual or violent comments toward them. (Quartz noted that before #MeToo, if you called Siri a “bitch” she would demur with “I’d blush if I could,” or “There’s no need for that.” Now she says, “Language!”) When Microsoft’s Cortana assistant was launched in 2014, many early queries directed at her were about her sex life. And a 2017 industry report by MindShareWorld found that more than a quarter of users fantasize about having sex with their voice assistant.
“The technology is sexualized through having a female voice; there’s something about having a woman in the role of being subservient that activates that narrative,” said Dr. Sweeney. “But it’s not strictly interchangeable between genders. So having a male like John Legend in that role may not activate the same sexual narrative.”
But publicizing a male celebrity like Legend as the voice of the Google Assistant is a big deal because virtual assistants have become so pervasive. The Google Assistant is available on more than 500 million devices and will be available in more than 30 languages and 80 countries by the end of the year. Bank of America’s Erica will be available to the financial institution’s 25 million mobile clients. And as the Huffington Post recently noted, half a billion Apple devices have Siri on them; Amazon sold tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices during the 2017 holiday shopping spree; and Microsoft’s Cortana has almost 150 million active monthly users. That adds up to millions of people ordering around their AI voice apps — which are often personified as female — every day. So it’s essential to get male voices in the mix, and get them checking the weather and making shopping lists, too.
You can also switch the gender of Siri, Alexa and Cortana’s voices by going into the settings for your personal assistant app. But research has shown that both men and women prefer female voices to male voices in their voice activated assistants — which is one reason developers keep skewing the defaults to be female in the first place — so it’s unlikely that making male voices available will lead to a huge shift overnight; not even Legend’s.
“Just because you have the option doesn’t mean that people will necessarily choose it. Game researchers have noted that a lot of customization is available in video game characters, but it doesn’t stop players from choosing super sexy female characters that don’t wear a lot of clothes,” said Dr. Sweeney. “But having options or switching the default voice away from female might create an interesting landscape that has new cultural meaning.”
“Of course, there’s also the cultural narrative of bossing a person of color around on our phones,” she added, referring to Legend. “It’s so complicated. And I think a lot of designers are looking for what is the ‘right answer’ [as in, whose is the ‘right’ voice for these virtual assistants] and it’s raising a lot of questions.”
Google has introduced some other features to stop users from behaving badly. For parents concerned about their kids rudely bossing the Assistant around, the “Pretty Please” feature powered by Family Link being introduced later this year will offer positive reinforcement to children who ask for things nicely, and say “please” and “thank you,” to encourage polite conversation. Amazon’s new Echo Dot Kids speaker rolled out a similar “Magic Word” feature; when kids say “please” while making a request, Alexa responds with, “By the way, thanks for asking so nicely.”
Google has also developed some digital wellbeing features to save tech-obsessed users from themselves. Android users are getting a new dashboard that will display how much time you’re spending on your device, and breaking down how much time you’ve spent in apps. You can set an App Timer to set limits on how long you use certain apps, and you’ll get a notification when your time is almost up — and then the app will be grayed-out on your screen to remind you not to touch it. There will also be a Wind Down feature, which will wash out the colors on your screen to grayscale at your selected bedtime to remind you to put the phone down and get to sleep.
This article was originally posted May 9, 2018 and has been updated with Bank of America’s new virtual assistant.
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