The whole point of having a digital assistant is to have it do stuff for you. You’re supposed to boss it around.
But it still sounds like a bit of a reprimand whenever I hear someone talking to an Amazon Echo. The monolithic voice-activated digital assistant will, when instructed, play music for you, read headlines, add items to your Amazon shopping cart, and complete any number of other tasks. And to activate the Echo, you first have to say: “Alexa.” As in, “Alexa, play rock music.” (Or, more pointedly, “Alexa, stop.”)
The command for Microsoft’s Cortana—“Hey Cortana”—is similar, though maybe a smidge gentler. Apple’s Siri can be activated with a “hey,” or with the push of a button. Not to get overly anthropomorphic here—Amazon’s the one who refers to Echo as part of the family, after all—but if we’re going to live in a world in which we’re ordering our machines around so casually, why do so many of them have to have women’s names?
The simplest explanation is that people are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in administrative roles—and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations. But maybe there’s more to it.
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” the Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass, told CNN in 2011. (Nass died in 2013.) “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”
Which sounds nice, but doesn’t necessarily hold up to cultural scrutiny. Just ask any woman who works in radio about how much unsolicited criticism she receives about the way she talks. (One study, published in 2014, found men are perceived less negatively than women for the same vocal tics, especially the creaky pitch known as vocal fry. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, has explored this phenomenon, too.)
The computer engineer Dag Kittlaus, who helped create Siri, has said that the name was inspired by the Norse meaning, “beautiful victory.” An engineer at Siri Inc., which helped develop the software and which Apple acquired in 2010, said in a Quora post that he and others were surprised when Apple decided to keep the name. Apple declined to elaborate on the origin of the name, but confirmed the characterization above. It’s been widely reported that the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs didn’t like the name Siri, but that no one at Apple could agree on anything better. (Perhaps I should note here that Siri doesn’t always default to a female-sounding voice; if you switch Siri’s language to United Kingdom English, for instance, it switches to male.)
Cortana, which was originally Microsoft’s code-name for the digital assistant project, is a reference to a nude character in the video game Halo. (Cortana isn’t actually naked, the director of the Halo franchise has said; she’s just wearing a “holographic body stocking” designed to make it look that way.) Amazon tells me that Alexa is short for Alexandria, an homage to the ancient library. (Which, okay, but they could have gone with Alex, right?) And, a spokesperson reminded me, Alexa can be activated with one of 3 words: Alexa, Amazon, or Echo—though some customers have complained they want more options.
Google’s digital assistant doesn’t have a woman’s name, or even a human’s name, but OK Google, as it’s called, does have a female voice—and a voice that was recently upgraded to sound more human-like. (Google declined repeated requests to discuss how it thinks about naming its tools and software.) But it’s notable that Google steered away from a human name, which is one of the first big choices that the maker of a digital assistant has to make. That’s according to Dennis Mortensen, the CEO and co-founder of x.ai, which built a digital assistant that you can email to schedule meeting for you. Mortensen told me he believes we’re on the cusp of a software revolution, in which apps and web services will be replaced by artificial intelligence.
“As we start to see these intelligent agents,” Mortensen told me, “the first question we have to ask is: Do we choose to humanize it? If you don’t, you call it Google Now. I’m not saying that’s any better or worse. If you do choose to humanize it, then we come back to ... what should the name be?”
Mortensen’s company picked Amy Ingram, and later added Andrew Ingram—giving users the chance to pick the name they liked better. (The idea wasn’t as much about gender diversity as it was about giving the people named Amy an alternative to a personal assistant with their same name, he said.) The inclusion of a last name was a way to give their digital assistant the initials A.I., and also helps make emails from the assistant appear normal in a person’s larger inbox, like something sent by a human. (The last name Ingram is also a play on words, meant to evoke “n-gram,” which refers to a probabilistic model used frequently in computing.)
Mortensen chose Amy for the digital assistant’s first name because, in a previous job, he had an actual human assistant named Amy. (“One day I should probably call her and say, ‘You have 200,000 new friends you just don’t know it,’” he told me.) Mortensen doesn’t think that the tendency to give digital assistants feminine names necessarily reflects attitudes on real-world gender roles, though.
“To provide a little bit of defense for some of my fellow technologists, [research] has been done—certainly on a voice level—on how you and I best take orders from a voice-enabled system,” he said. “And it’s been conclusive that you and I just take orders from a female voice better. Some of them suggest that the pitch itself, just from an audio technology perspective is just easier to understand.”
Or maybe it’s just that people think they understand a female voice better.
In 1980, for example, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that several surveys among airplane pilots indicated a “strong preference” for automated warning systems to have female voices, even though empirical data showed there was no significant difference in how pilots responded to either female or male voices. (Several of the pilots said they preferred a female voice because it would be distinct from most of the other voices in the cockpit.)
In another study, published in 2012, people who used an automated phone system found a male voice more “usable,” but not necessarily as “trustworthy” as a female voice. And much like the group of pilots, men tended to say they preferred female voices even though they didn’t end up demonstrating that preference. “Whereas the women in the study implicitly preferred female voices to male ones, even more than they admitted in the questionnaire,” Tanya Lewis wrote for Live Science at the time.
If men are often the ones building digital assistants, and those assistants are modeled after women, “I think that probably reflects what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings,” Kathleen Richardson, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, told Lewis.
This may also be part of a larger tendency for the makers of anthropomorphic technologies, like robots, to play up cute and non-threatening qualities as a vehicle toward social acceptance. The funny thing is, some of the world’s most powerful and destructive technologies have been given female names, too. Humans have often bestowed deadly weapons with female names—like the Big Bertha howitzer and the Mons Meg cannon. It has been suggested, as I’ve written in the past, that perhaps this is an example of the objectification of women taken to its logical extension. Yet people use masculine names for some technologies, too. Consider the “jack,” a catch-all term for “any contrivance that turns, lifts, or holds ,” as Peter McClure put it in an Oxford English Dictionary blog post. Even without teasing apart all the possible reasons for the tendency to assign gendered names to machines, it’s reasonable to suggest traditional power structures have a lot to do with it.
Back in the world of digital assistants, there is also Facebook’s M, which stands for messenger, a spokesperson told me. “M” may not be gender specific, but The New York Times has referred to it as a “her.” That may be because M actually is a woman—as in, a human woman. When Brian X. Chen, a reporter for the Times, asked M to schedule a photo shoot at a friend’s studio, the friend reported back to Chen that the phone call he received from Facebook was definitely conducted by a human woman. (M is still in the earliest stages of development, Facebook explained to the Times.)
Chen referred to the woman as a “not-so-virtual assistant.” Which is, you know, an assistant. And though she may not be a machine, it appears she’ll fit in just fine.