Siri, Sophia, Samantha

ai_0If someone was looking back at this point in human history they would think that women were at the cutting edge of Artificial Intelligence. Maybe they were the inventors who created robots ‘in their image’??

The Birth of Artificial Intelligence

Despite warnings from Stephen Hawking and others, progress is being made in AI in leaps and bounds (and more on that in a later post.)

But why is the interface always female?

This thought came to me when I saw the video showing Sophia, with her face looking as natural as a botoxed high society woman and with strange pointy breasts. The TweetBot developed recently by Microsoft was also a young girl called Tay.

One of the earliest forms of AI that our generation started encountering on a daily basis was the GPS. It was developed by the U.S.A military and became available to the general public in the 1990s. Its voice is that of a woman, thus allowing everyone to soundly curse ‘her’ when ‘she’ sends you off a cliff or into a dead end.

As no surprise to anyone, one of the few countries where GPS is not in a female voice is Germany where a BMW GPS was recalled because men refused to “take directions from a woman.”

AI vs Natrual

We also have the automated response systems where, almost always, ‘she’ will thank you for calling and ask you to be on hold because ‘your call is important to us’, thus leaving you free to listen to Beethoven’s moonlight sonata while cursing ‘her’ freely for wasting your life.

Then came Siri, who was the voice of your phone, a female voice. You asked ‘her’ to do things like a boss would have told his secretary in the 50s and 60s. Siri, remind me of my appointment. Siri, get me the journal article. Siri, tell me a joke. Siri, are you a naughty girl now?!

One common explanation is that both men and women prefer a female voice. Sure, but it is also claimed that using a female voice for these tasks has traditional resonance since secretaries, telephone operators (and your mother) have all been women.

Sigh…so we invent radical new technology and then tie it down to regressive traditional norms.

And then there is of course the obvious sexism.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Home have women’s voices because women’s voices make more money. Yes, Silicon Valley is male-dominated and notoriously sexist, but this phenomenon runs deeper than that. Bot creators are primarily driven by predicted market success, which depends on customer satisfaction — and customers like their digital servants to sound like women.”

So there we have it. Despite the fact that Ada Lovelace ( daughter of the poet Lord Byron), was the inventor of the modern computer programme , anticipating future developments in computer science, 9 out of 10 software developers and AI programmers are men.

“Thus the chance that male bot developers manually programmed these bots to respond to sexual harassment with jokes is exceedingly high. Do they prefer their bots respond ironically, rather than intelligently and directly, to sexual harassment?”

siri dialogue

And now we have Sophia, whose name means the Wise One. She appeared on the Tonight Show, with her ‘natural’ botoxed looking face, pointy breasts ( as an aside –while real people are struggling for gender non conforming spectrum, here we are creating very stereotypical ‘feminine’ bodies for robots!) and a plan for world domination through stone- paper- scissors. Watch this funny interaction here:

elle cover


But she is apparently the first ‘social robot’ and has also been offered the citizenship of Saudi Arabia. (Yes, the same country which continues to stone women to death for adultery. One can only wonder how long it will last before Sophia makes eye contact with a laptop and then it’s all over for her….

(As another pinnacle of ironies, Saudi Arabia, which has executed over 150 people this year, mostly by public beheading is current chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council Panel).

So what is it about developing female interface to A.I.? Perhaps all these men have a Pygmalion complex? In Roman mythology Pygmalion, a sculptor, makes an ivory statue representing his ideal of womanhood and then falls in love with his own creation. My Fair Lady was a modern version of this.

Perhaps these men aspire to create what would be, for them, the ideal woman. They programmed her, so she will obey. They can order her around.

Sit, Sophia. Yes, Master.

Much like the creepy- as- hell movie from 1972 called the Stepford Wives.

As for Samantha from the title– She is a sex robot who was brutalized by men at a technology show.

Just like online spaces reflect the same patriarchy, privilege, misogyny and violence against women that real life does, what does it mean for the future if A.I. is already sexist even while taking these baby steps?


Siri, do you have an answer for me??


5 thoughts on “Siri, Sophia, Samantha

  1. Really? My Siri was originally set to a male voice with a Brit accent, which was too sexy for me! So I changed to the female Siri.
    Incidentally, the human ear is more sensitive to female voices, I’ve read somewhere.

  2. Amazing!
    Curiously, all the SIRIs on various computers/ tablets in our household are men, and our satnav has a option to choose from various male and female voices with different accents, so had never thought about it this way!

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