The voices of the future are female

BY JANE BEDARD
Special to the VOICE

“Congratulations! You finished the first section,” she said.

“Thank-you,” I replied.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“No, it actually wasn’t too hard.”

“Are you ready to move on?”

“Yes, I believe I am.”

“Then let’s get started. Vamos!”

This was the only adult conversation I had yesterday. Sadly, the woman with whom I was “conversing”—let’s call her Maria—was the recorded voice on the Drive and Speak Spanish CD I was listening to.

I’m on the road frequently and am on Track 33, so I’ve become quite familiar with Maria. She’s pleasant enough. Has a soothing voice. And she’s helping me learn Spanish during a time when I would normally be tuning into adolescent pop music or traffic reports for a distant city.

There’s another instructor on the CD. He’s a man, whom I’ll call Pedro, and when I listen to him directing the lesson, I find that I am suddenly more confused by the increased difficulty of the content.

Pedro’s accent is also a little more challenging to understand and replicate. Suddenly I am less inclined to pay attention. Why is Pedro telling me what to do? Where is Maria? I listen to Pedro more closely and acknowledge that he is trying to sound friendly and encouraging–but I’m not buying it. There is something about the sound of his voice that irritates me slightly and makes me want to switch to my shallow FM station.

With this strange realization, I got to thinking about the other AI (artificial intelligence) relationships in my life.

SIRI and I have a pretty good thing going on. The gal on my voice message is ok, although we’re not that close. My Ways app is a female; with an enthusiastic voice, she sits shotgun, inspiring me to navigate confidently through the jungle of my day-to-day travels—that is, after I figured out how to change the British Boy Band voice my son programmed, who sung his directions like, “Turn Le-heft, then, turn ri-hite,” which sounded more like a Gregorian chant ushering me into a meditation cave. Creepy.

Beyond my own usage, I thought about the many other AI supports which seem to default to a female sounding tone. There must be something to it, as Apple’s SIRI, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant all have agreeable, dare I say, nurturing, voices.

So, I looked it up and found gobs of articles and studies on the topic, which offered a variety of explanations for this pitch preference.

Historically, in WWII, women’s voices were transmitted to the cockpits of planes for navigation to distinguish them from the men’s voices on board. Biologically, the human brain has developed to like female voices, beginning as early as in the womb, where fetuses were shown to react to a female’s voice and not to a male’s.

From a media standpoint, ever since the homicidal computer, the HAL 9000, in 2001–A Space Odyssey was introduced, many developers of AI have steered clear of all voices male, no matter how friendly. It’s also just easier to find a female voice that appeals to a large audience.

Of course there are always exceptions to every rule: In France and the UK, SIRI is a man.

Without evidence, I imagine that the British are deeply rooted and proud of their military pursuits and feel strongly about having a man in charge (apologies to Ms. Thatcher and Ms. May).

The French, I can only postulate, actually wanted their AI to have a feminine voice, but were too afraid to say so, surrendering to whichever automated program was installed for them by aggressive tech advisors.

Interestingly, when car manufacturer BMW released its new line of vehicles at the end of the 1990s, featuring a female voice in the new navigational system, there was outrage by German male drivers who refused to take directions from a woman. The cars were recalled.

Sexism plays a major role in many of the articles I read, particularly in those authored by women. There is a stereotype that female voices sound more pleasing and submissive and that male voices sound more authoritative and imposing. Men tell you what to do. Women help you do it.

As much as any stereotype is unacceptable, I’m afraid that I’m complicit in perpetuating this one. Instinctively, I feel like Maria is patiently helping me learn Spanish. Pedro, however, is a bossy pants, whose expectations leave me feeling slow and incompetent.

While some AI manufacturers are adopting gender-neutral sounding speech, the overall preference still seems to be the warm and friendly female helper. Perhaps someone could ask Computer, the AI on the USS Enterprise, if she can help explain this fairly universal phenomenon.

In the meantime, Maria, and I, along with Pedro, will continue on our journey together, discussing los coches nuevos (the new cars) and los camiones rojos (the red trucks) on the road to learning.

Adiós amigos!

(P.S. Alexa, submit Column Six, please.)