If it seems weird, ask yourself why.
I was surprised and annoyed to discover that our robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba has a robotic yet distinctly feminine voice. The last iteration we owned didn’t have a voice at all, but this one says helpful things aloud, like, “Error: move Roomba to a new location,” or “Error: place Roomba on a flat surface,” in a pleasantly deep woman’s voice.
In defiance of that, I named it Sebastian, and make an effort to refer to it as “he.” It’s my small protest against helpful robots being oddly, persistently and almost unanimously feminine. And it’s hard — it has a voice I recognize as female. The name “Roomba” ends in a, a trait we typically associate with female names.
But I try.
Why do robots need to have a gender at all?
Getting an obviously feminized Roomba made me think about robots and gender, especially as I was fielding confusing questions from friends and relatives about why I was forcing my Roomba to be a male robot.
“It’s a robot vacuum cleaner,” you say. “Why make it have any gender? Why not just have it be a robot?”
The bizarre thing is I’m not alone in forcing a seemingly arbitrary gender upon my genderless robot. In pop culture, nearly all robots have some kind of gender. And like me, it’s not a random allocation of boy and girl robots. Instead, they tend to be categorized along role.
Oddly, the ones that have their own lives, their own decisions to make, are almost always male. The ones that exist to serve others? They’re coded female.
The Terminator, RoboCop, BB-8, R2D2, most Transformers and even Sonny in I, Robot, are all recognized as masculine. Where female robots exist, they’re usually somehow sexual or servile in nature, like the fembots in Stepford Wives or even my own Roomba. There are exceptions, of course. But mainly, those are the oddly gendered roles that robots fall into pop culture.
Meanwhile, real-life hasn’t yet caught up with robots in sci-fi — no Terminator that I know of — but we do have Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and, to my eternal annoyance, Roomba. All default to female voices. All are devices that help out. And all could have been neutral, or even male in tone. But they’re not.
It may seem like a small and even weirdly unnecessary step to take. After all, nobody’s saying that Roomba is a woman. It’s a robotic vacuum cleaner, after all. But I think it’s weird that a robot is feminized in the first place. In 2020, why should a robot have a feminine voice? Why not neutral or masculine?
Who decides the robotic genders?
Here’s what gets me: it wasn’t accidental. It had to have been an active choice. At some point, some developer was picking out voices and gave Roomba a female voice. Siri was designed to default to female. Alexa was given a female name.
I wanted to know why. Who chose it? How had they explained their rationale? What did they say when they were asked the same question I’ve been asked: why did you make your robot have a gender, and why did you pick that one?
Siri, acquired by Apple in 2012, was originally conceived by Dag Kittlaus. Apparently, Siri in Norwegian means “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory.”
If you ask Siri what its gender is, it’ll reply that it’s beyond gender. And yet it isn’t, because the default is very obviously female and was in fact recorded by a woman. This discrepancy between claiming to be beyond gender and yet still clearly is meant to be perceived as feminine is frustrating and feels disingenuous to me.Cortana, meanwhile, was named after a specific character in Microsoft’s HALO franchise. She’s an AI character, but indubitably is a she.
I’ll leave you with this fascinating quote from Cortana’s Wikipedia page:
“Cortana has been recognized for her believability and character depth as well as her sex appeal. The character was the inspiration for Microsoft’s intelligent personal assistant of the same name.”
Meanwhile, Amazon’s Alexa was named after the Library of Alexandria. A library has no gender, and yet Amazon chose Alexa rather than Alex.
What happens when you make robot personal assistants male?
It turns out they’re no longer perceived as personal assistants.
“When early assistants such as Apple’s 1987 “Knowledge Navigator” were given male personas, they tended to be seen as ‘a research assistant, an academic librarian and an information manager, rather than as a personal secretary,” reports Alex Hearn via The Guardian.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s Daniel Rausch explained that Alexa has a female voice because trials showed we perceive feminine voices to be more pleasing. While he didn’t talk much more about those trials, he did mention that they showed we “generally opt for women to assist us and that we find their voices more agreeable,” according to Business Insider.
It could also have been that Amazon’s Daniel Rausch finds it more fitting that a woman’s voice answers his beck and call rather than a male voice, and for some reason prefers to have a female assistant rather than a male one— or even no gender at all!
The future (of AI assistants) is female
AI voices, sex dolls, and other helpful nonhuman voices in our homes are overwhelmingly female. And to me, that seems like an obvious oversight that should be fixed.
I can’t code apps. I can’t make the next Alexa. But I can and will name my robot vacuum cleaner Sebastian. And if that seems weird to you, take a minute and ask yourself why.