Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and Bixby — almost all virtual assistants have something in common. Their default voices are women’s, though the role that plays in reinforcing gender stereotypes has been long documented, even inspiring the dystopian romance “Her.” Virtue, the creative agency owned by publisher Vice, wants to challenge the trend with a genderless voice called Q.
The project, done in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive and thirtysoundsgood, wants technology companies to think outside the binary.
“Technology companies are continuing to gender their voice technology to fit scenarios in which they believe consumers will feel most comfortable adopting and using it,” says Q’s website. “A male voice is used in more authoritative roles, such as banking and insurance apps, and a female voice in more service-oriented roles, such as Alexa and Siri.”
To develop Q, Virtue worked with Anna Jørgensen, a linguist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen. They recorded the voices of five non-binary people, then used software to modulate the recordings to between 145-175 Hz, the range defined by researchers as gender neutral. The recordings were further refined after surveying 4,600 people and asking them to define the voices on a scale from 1 (male) to 5 (female).
Virtue is encouraging people to share Q with Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, noting that even when different options are given for voice assistants, they are still usually categorized as male or female. As the project’s mission statement puts it, “as society continues to break down the gender binary, recognizing those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.”