UN body raises concerns over digital assistants defaulting to female voices

A new publication from UNESCO has raised concerns over digital assistants which default to a female voice and the impact this could be having on people. In the new report, called ‘I’d blush if I could’, UNESCO raises the concerns that it has and how they can be addressed.

The naming of the report highlights the issue the UN is trying to address. ‘I’d blush if I could’ is the response that Apple’s Siri gives when a user says “Hey Siri you’re a bi***.” In the report, UNESCO working with Germany and EQUALS Skills Coalition, set out five concerns that they have regarding the widespread usage of female voices for assistants, they are:

  1. reflects, reinforces and spreads gender bias;
  2. models acceptance of sexual harassment and verbal abuse;
  3. sends messages about how women and girls should respond to requests and express themselves;
  4. makes women the ‘face’ of glitches and errors that result from the limitations of hardware and software designed predominately by men; and
  5. forces a synthetic ‘female’ voice and personality to defer questions and commands to higher (and often male) authorities.

Google has already implemented features which encourage users to use manners when speaking to their digital assistant, however, UNESCO’s report still shows there are a couple more things that could be improved. In the document, the United Nations’ recommendations around AI gendering are included. They implore companies and governments to:

  1. end the practice of making digital assistants female by default;
  2. explore the feasibility of developing a neutral machine gender for voice assistants that is neither male nor female;
  3. programme digital assistants to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language;
  4. encourage interoperability so that users can change digital assistants, as desired; and
  5. require that operators of AI-powered voice assistants announce the technology as non-human at the outset of interactions with human users.

Discussing the findings, Saniye Gülser Corat, Director of Gender Equality at UNESCO, said:

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices. Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves. To change course, we need to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”

Another suggestion UNESCO gave was for the teams building the software to be better balanced. It pointed out that today women only makeup 12% of AI researchers, represent just 6% of software developers, and are 13 times less likely to file an ICT patent than men. A section in the publication recommends that this gap can be closed with gender-equal digital skills education and training.

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