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.