Deep inside a spaghetti bowl of suburban Maryland streets this weekend, I turned to a trusted guide for directions back to the highway. But this guide couldn’t figure out what direction we were going, and she asked me to perform nonsensical maneuvers. “Actually, don’t listen to Siri—she can’t figure out where we are,” said a friend in the passenger seat.
Referring to Apple’s artificial-intelligence (AI) assistant as “she” feels natural because of Siri’s female-sounding voice. Although Siri herself will tell you she is neither male nor female—“I exist beyond your human concept of gender”—her relatively natural-sounding voice elicits a warmer response than a stilted robot voice would.
There’s an option buried in every iPhone to make Siri speak in a male-sounding voice (or in a British or an Australian accent), but Siri is not “he” by default for a reason: Research shows that people react more positively to female voices.
The quality of these digital assistants’ voices earns them a gendered pronoun—but what about AI that looks and sounds more like a robot? The iconic R2-D2, for example, speaks entirely in bleeps and bloops, but is referred to with a male pronoun throughout the Star Wars saga. The latest Star Wars droid, BB-8, is even less humanoid, rolling around on a smooth sphere. But he, too, has been assigned a gender, although his gender identity fluctuated during the production of The Force Awakens.