‘Alexa, are you reinforcing gender biases?’ U.N. says yes.

Why do all of our virtual assistants have a female voice?

‘Alexa, are you reinforcing gender biases?’ U.N. says yes.

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  • A new U.N. report claims that virtual assistants, such as Alexa and Siri, are reinforcing gender stereotypes.
  • The report covers gender gaps in science, technology, and computer literacy.
  • The reason why most virtual assistants are female may stem from the fact that consumers generally prefer the female voice.

From Siri to Alexa, or Cortana to Google, our virtual assistants almost always have a female persona. That's a problem, according to a new Unesco report, because it's reinforcing ideas that women are "obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers," and it's baking gender biases into AI technology that's only going to become more ubiquitous in years to come.

The 145-page U.N. report – titled "I'd blush if I could", a response Siri once gave when called a slut – covers gender gaps in technology and science, taking issue with the submissive traits given to AI female personas.

"The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it," the report states. "It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility. In many communities, this reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment."

The report provides examples of how the virtual assistants respond to harassment.

"...in response to the remark 'You're a bitch', Apple's Siri responded: 'I'd blush if I could'; Amazon's Alexa: 'Well thanks for the feedback'; Microsoft's Cortana: 'Well, that's not going to get us anywhere'; and Google Home (also Google Assistant): 'My apologies, I don't understand'."

It also referenced a Quartz report showing that female virtual assistants seemed to respond differently to sexual advances depending on the gender of the commander, with statements like "'Oooh!'; 'Now, now'" to men, and responses like "I'm not THAT kind of personal assistant" to women.

"Siri's 'female' obsequiousness — and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women — provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products," the report found.

Why are virtual assistants female?

Market research from Amazon and Microsoft suggests that consumers generally prefer the female voice in their virtual assistants.

"For our objectives—building a helpful, supportive, trustworthy assistant—a female voice was the stronger choice," said a Microsoft spokeswoman.

Why was it a stronger choice? The answer could be because men and women both seem to think the female voice is "warmer," according to a 2008 study on how people respond to digital voices. Interestingly, the same study found that women showed stronger implicit preference for the female voice, while men showed a neutral implicit preference (and a strong explicit preference) for the female voice.

Of course, there could be cultural reasons that explain why we expect to hear a female persona occupy the role of an assistant.

"Asking that why it is that virtual assistants are assigned a female voice is almost like asking why there have traditionally been more female than male secretaries," psychologist Vinita Mehta told Forbes. "In society, it has so far been women who are assigned roles to help and support, which are traits that we look for in those we wish to have assist us."

But what about HAL 9000 or IBM's Watson? Why weren't these supercomputers given female voices? The answer might be that our preferences and expectations for digital voices vary depending on the task at hand.

"IBM's Watson, an AI of a higher order, speaks with a male voice as it works alongside physicians on cancer treatment and handily wins Jeopardy," wrote Chandra Steele for PCmag.com. "When choosing Watson's voice for Jeopardy, IBM went with one that was self-assured and had it use short definitive phrases. Both are typical of male speech — and people prefer to hear a masculine-sounding voice from a leader, according to research — so Watson got a male voice."

​'Closing the gap'

The new report aims to shed light on the gender gaps in technology, science and computer literacy.

"Today, women and girls are 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic purposes, 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers and 13 times less likely to file for a technology patent," the report states. "At a moment when every sector is becoming a technology sector, these gaps should make policy-makers, educators and everyday citizens 'blush' in alarm."

According to Allison Gardner, a co-founder of Women Leading in A.I., the bulk of the gender-bias problems in A.I. aren't intentional, but rather stem from a lack of awareness.

"It's not always malicious bias, it's unconscious bias, and lack of awareness that this unconscious bias exists, so it's perpetuated," Gardner told The New York Times. "But these mistakes happen because you do not have the diverse teams and the diversity of thought and innovation to spot the obvious problems in place."

Earlier in May, Melinda Gates echoed a similar sentiment to CNN's Poppy Harlow.

"I know what happened when the Constitution was written in this country and how long it took women to get the right to vote. And look where we are on race issues in this country," she told Harlow. "Do we really want to bake bias into artificial intelligence?"

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An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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