Siri and Her Girls: Why So Many Robot Helpers Are Ladies

Apple's new digital personal assistant is distinctively feminine, just like the disembodied voices of GPS, voicemail, and corporate call centers.

Apple's new digital personal assistant is distinctively feminine, just like the disembodied voices of GPS, voicemail, and corporate call centers.
Siri, Apple's just-released digital personal assistant, may be an artificial personality born of lines of code, but she is also very much a lady, judged by her voice.
In very general terms, robots tend to fall into one of the three categories of male-identified, masculine-seeming, or just androgynous. But there is one genre of AI that tilts the other way, that tends to be female: the disembodied voice. The rough rule seems to be that corporeal inventions are male -- particularly if they are killing someone, either on screen or in the military -- and the non-corporeal are female (although there are plenty of exceptions, notably, Rosie, the Jetson's maid, who, it bears repeating, was a maid).
You're probably familiar with a few of these "ladies": the default voice on most GPS systems, the computer that guides you around your voicemail, Julie the Amtrak lady. These "women" assist you in your planning, help you find what you're looking for, and, in the case of the GPS, keep you calm when you're lost. They perform, to put it bluntly, women's work. They don't need bodies to do it -- they aren't hot or sexy like the cultural trope of the steamy secretary -- but they aren't cunning either, like HAL 9000. They are brains without bodies, but also without minds of their own.
Siri's role fits in nicely with these themes: she'll book your appointments, check the weather for you, remind you to pick up something at the store. These are classic personal-secretary tasks, and somewhere around 97 percent of all secretaries in America are of the female persuasion. She can be a little saucy, but just a little. (Interestingly, Siri is not a lady all around the world. Her British self is a man; her Australian self is a woman. Feel free to float your own theories about that. I'm going to focus on the American Siri, and confine my thoughts to robot gender on this side of the Atlantic.)
This reality is at least a partial explanation of why companies like Amtrak and Apple have reached for female voices when building assistant robots. Simply, the stereotypes we have of women, combined with the stereotypes we have of that sort of work, make female voices a more natural choice, as Stanford professor Clifford Nass explained in an interview in the Toronto Star.
But it's curious that when Apple imagined a Siri-like system in 1987, the company pictured a dweeby little man in a bow tie. In the intervening years they junked the bow tie, the avatar, and, of course, the male gender. What explains the change? When contacted for the story about how Siri got her gender, an Apple spokesperson responded that beyond instructing me to try Siri in different languages, they "wouldn't be able to get into the nitty gritty."
One clue comes from an interview with one of Siri's early backers, Shawn Carolan, in which he says that originally the inventors had tried to secure a URL for HAL, but when that was unavailable, they turned to Siri, which is a Norwegian woman's name. Carolan says, "Personally, I'm glad it was Siri. Hal may have been too [ominous] a persona." Additionally, Carolan explains that they opted not to give her an avatar because, "if Siri looked like me or you, maybe our friends would use it and like it, but somebody in a different part of the world would not. So we figured if it was just a name and a nice voice, people could put their own face on it."
Of course, if Apple had wanted to make Siri a man when they acquired her, it could have done so, as it did in the U.K.

But perhaps shifts in our relationship with technology since Apple's original Siri pilot may have pushed Apple to opt for a woman. In 1987, people didn't rely on their devices the way we do today. They didn't trust them as much. Apple needed to build that trust and wanted its then-imaginary personal assistant to project an air of competence. Natural choice? Manly avatar. But as people have gained confidence in their gadgets, the question for Apple has shifted from performance to likability. And that brings us to another point Nass makes: marketers have an easier time finding a universally likable female voice than a male one. This dovetails with the way stereotypes work; our prejudices make us dislike hearing a man go about secretarial work.
As Alexis put it, Siri can make anyone feel like Don Draper. What's implicit in that feeling is not just the thrill of making the world spin with a few words from your mouth, but the dynamics between men and women that undergird that power, that propel it.
Image: Reuters.