'Female-voiced AI assistants such as Alexa and Siri reinforce gender bias'

Most well-known AI speakers use a female voice Credit: Federica De Caria/PA

AI assistants with female voices such as Alexa and Google Assistant reinforce gender stereotypes that women are “subservient” to men, a UN report has claimed.

The UNESCO paper criticised the devices for making it appear that women are “obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button".

It also noted that they respond to blunt voice commands such as ''hey'' or ''okay'' and verbal abuse is met with flirtation, "I’d blush if I could,’' was a Siri response to a sexual insult.

Most well-known AI speakers currently on the market use a female voice – at least by default – including Amazon’s Alexa, the Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Apple’s Siri uses a male voice in Arabic, British English, Dutch and French, while elsewhere around the world she has a female voice.

The research goes on to state that these assistants hold no power regardless of the tone or hostility of the command, which “reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment”.

Smart speakers have become popular devices in many homes. Credit: PA

“Companies like Apple and Amazon, staffed by overwhelmingly male engineering teams, have built AI systems that cause their feminised digital assistants to greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation,” it said.

Responses from the AI speaker to verbal sexual harassment are “deflecting, lacklustre or apologetic," the report continues.

“Beyond engaging and sometimes even thanking users for sexual harassment, voice assistants – ostensibly non-gendered, despite a female voice – seemed to show a greater tolerance towards sexual advances from men than from women.

“It projects a digitally encrypted ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”

The 146-page paper, about closing gender divides in digital skills through education, is titled ‘I’d Blush If I Could’, a reference to a Siri response to a sexual insult.

It is not clear why female voices are chosen.

Dave Limp, Senior Vice President, Amazon Devices, introduces smart speakers during a product launch in London. Credit: PA

Researchers say they want companies to adopt gender-neutral voices, such as the robotic voice used by the late Stephen Hawking.

The report mentions previous studies which suggest that people like low-pitch masculine speech and male voices for authoritative statements, and female voices for being helpful – though generally the voice of the opposite sex is said to be preferred.

According to research from last year, one in 10 people has one or more smart speakers in their home, with Amazon’s range of Echo smart devices the market leader.