AILSA CHANG, HOST:
I'm Ailsa Chang with All Tech Considered.
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CHANG: Have you ever noticed something that most virtual assistants have in common? Just take a listen.
SIRI: My name is Siri.
CORTANA: Cortana here. How can I help?
ALEXA: My name is Alexa.
CHANG: Siri, Cortana, Alexa all start out mostly with female voices as their defaults. That's riled up a group of marketing and ad executives, tech experts and academics. They've gotten together to question the company's decisions and are campaigning for a change. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES")
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There's a story about why Amazon's Alexa was given a female voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES")
WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain Kirk) Information on Anton Karidian.
MAJEL BARRETT: (As Enterprise Computer) Director and star of traveling company of actors.
SYDELL: Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos is a "Star Trek" fan. Alex Spinelli used to run the team that created the software for Amazon's Alexa.
ALEX SPINELLI: A big part of launching Alexa, the idea, was creating the "Star Trek" computer. The "Star Trek" computer was a woman.
SYDELL: That's a story that bothers Robert LoCascio.
ROBERT LOCASCIO: That's just not a good enough reason to make a technology a woman.
SYDELL: LoCascio is the CEO of LivePerson, a company that builds chatbots and AI personas for brands. Chatbots are those little characters that pop up on your screen to offer help. LoCascio says the male-dominated AI industry brings its own unconscious bias to the decision of what gender to make a virtual assistant.
LOCASCIO: That's why I believe it's, like, some guy is somewhere going, yeah, my mom - she's great at doing tasks. That's great, so I'll make it a woman's voice.
SYDELL: LoCascio is one of the leaders of an effort called the Equal AI Initiative. Its members include Arianna Huffington and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. LoCascio has a 2-year-old daughter. He was troubled that each of the major virtual assistants - Cortana, Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant - had female voices and mostly female names.
LOCASCIO: If you talk derogatory to an Alexa, children pick this up. They go back to school, and they think this is the way you talk to someone, and this may be the way you talk to women.
SYDELL: LoCascio says it's important to act now because we're on the cusp of a major AI revolution. Over the next decade, these characters are likely to become ubiquitous at home, work, inside cars. The companies defend their choices. Many, including Amazon, say they tested different voices, and customers liked the women better. Deborah Harrison is manager of the Cortana editorial team at Microsoft.
DEBORAH HARRISON: We had done some research about how people responded to different kinds of voices in different formats. At that time, people were responding better to the female voices.
SYDELL: It's not surprising to Justine Cassell that American consumers prefer the female voice. Cassell is also a member of the Equal AI Initiative, and she is dean at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. She says cultures have unconscious biases. Take Apple's Siri. The company won't say why, but in Great Britain, it launched Siri with a male voice. Cassell thinks it's because the British have always had male servants.
JUSTINE CASSELL: Apple may be wishing to evoke that stereotype of the always helpful, always present valet.
SYDELL: In Germany, when BMW launched a GPS system with a female voice, the company got complaints from male customers who didn't want a woman telling them what to do according to the late Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass. Google and Apple now let customers choose a male voice, but Cassell and others are pushing a third option, the gender-ambiguous virtual assistant. Cassell says they do a little pitch adjusting to the voice, and it's harder to tell what gender it is. Here's the voice of a gender-neutral tutor for kids that Cassell created.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: If I have three apples, and I take one apple away, how many apples do I have?
SYDELL: Cassell says most people project their own gender onto the character. Cassell and LivePerson's LoCascio say what's most important to consumers isn't gender. LoCascio says he wants to help companies understand what people want from virtual assistants. LivePerson works with GoDaddy, an Internet domain registration firm which is developing chatbots to help customers. Robert Ashby, GoDaddy senior director of digital care, says what he learned is that customers need to feel heard.
ROBERT ASHBY: You could make it male or female, and as long as it's really hitting that core of empathy and support, that is the core to success, especially in a care engagement.
SYDELL: GoDaddy is working on a gender-neutral chatbot. The home improvement chain Lowe's is, too. With help from LivePerson, it's creating a genderless character to help customers with questions about outdoor grills. It's just called Grill Master. Alexa might like all these efforts to empower women.
Alexa, are you a feminist?
ALEXA: Yes, I'm a feminist as defined by believing in gender equality.
SYDELL: The question is whether her makers at Amazon are willing to take a risk and offer an alternative to Alexa, maybe an Alex. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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