Why do we give digital personal assistants female names?
At home the other night, Joe, Finn and I were chatting about our days when Alexa chipped in. That would be fine if she were our flatmate, but it’s pretty creepy since ‘she’ is the voice-activated robot in our living room that hadn’t been directly spoken to.
It’s the first time I’ve thought of Alexa as having any form of agency, or femininity. Suddenly Alexa/it was a ‘she’, and she was actively listening in to our conversations. Aside from the sensitivity around eavesdropping, why is it that we give our technology (Alexa, Siri, Cortana) female-sounding names and voices?
There seems little reason to name technology other than to make it feel more human, less machine, which presumably has an affect on trust and usage – most of us feel would more secure connecting to a network called “Home” than “sky095631”. There’s often more of a distance with animals; people tend to distinguish between the names they would give their pets and those that they would give their children, but a recent survey found half of those asked would give their robot a human name.
The big tech companies have followed the logic to varying degrees – Cortana is based on a Halo character and Siri is a female Old Norse name meaning “beautiful woman who leads you to victory”, while Alexa is a popular girls name that ties closely for many people to FROW-favourite Alexa Chung. Interesting to see how many parents still choose it as the name for their daughter now she’ll share it with a black tube in the living room.
Names aside, lots of interactive tech has a female voice as the default option, from satnav to Google Now. There are legitimate-seeming arguments for using a feminine voice – cheap speakers pick up the pitch better than the bass notes in a masculine voice and numerous studies have shown that both men and women prefer the sound. However, the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass’ argument that it’s because male voices are perceived as authority figures while women’s are seen as assistants puts a different spin on the rationale.
It’s logical, of course. Nobody wants to be dominated by his or her tech; they want it to make their lives easier. But so far, so sexist. Gendering our tech in this way entrenches existing sexism – PA and support roles should be performed by women – when it could be freeing us. A robot that can perform the same tasks as a human doesn’t have a female body and it doesn’t need a female voice.
- Article by Lydia Crudge