UN Report Says Female AI Voices Reinforce Sexist Stereotypes

Devices and systems which use female voices for artificial intelligence (AI) assistants are reinforcing sexist gender stereotypes, according to a new report issued by the United Nations.

A new study by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took an in-depth look at the role gender plays in how AI devices use voice.

Female AI voices are sexist, UN says

The default voices for three of the world’s top virtual assistants are all female. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana all use women’s voices by default. Many other systems do as well.

But according to a new United Nations report, the use of female voices is serving to reinforce sexual stereotypes, such as women are “docile and eager to please helpers.” Further, the report says, it reinforces the idea that women are “available at the touch of a button” or ready to serve with blunt voice commands such as “hey” or “okay.”

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” said Saniye Gülser Corat, the director of gender equality at UNESCO. “Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves.”

Is the UN overthinking it?

However, one can argue that Corat’s assumption goes way too far. She presumes that an AI device will have a greater influence on how women are treated, than say, the way people have been taught by their actual human parents, teachers and other influential people in their lives.

“The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it,” the UNESCO report said. “It honors commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility.”

The above statement seems to imply that the UN is attributing far too great of a human quality to a machine.

The UN makes the statement: “The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it.”

Yes, that is true. It is simply a machine, not a human being with feelings or ideas of its own. Its only purpose is to do what it is asked. Much like your how your washing machine begins washing your clothes when you activate the start button.

Just because an AI machine responds to verbal commands rather than a physical button press, does not make it more “human-like” or change the basic fact that a device is simply a tool and nothing more.

The UN appears to want to make AI more human-like

Suggestions made by the UNESCO report appear to want to make AI devices much more human-like. They suggest making them “aware” of when users give them command instructions that are “abusive.”

They also suggest ending the use of female voices as the default voice on AI devices. Such a suggestion, however, could create a no-win situation. If manufacturers were to do this, there is little doubt they would then be criticized for discriminating against females.