Virtual Assistants Can Reinforce Sexist Stereotypes. These Researchers Want To Change That

If you have virtual assistance, chances are high that it’s been gendered. From leading assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, virtual assistants generally default to a female voice, and that’s a problem.

Although it may seem trivial, tech can reinforce old stereotypes, even as it innovates. That includes stereotypes of women who only exist to follow orders and please others. In some ways, virtual assistants are like having the ideal stereotype of a secretary sitting on your dresser.

To combat this trend, a Denmark-based team recently presented a new voice at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals in Texas, as reported by Reuters. Unlike leading voices, this one is designed to be neither male nor female.

Everybody, meet Q.

“Hi, I’m Q, the world’s first genderless voice assistant,” Q says for an introduction. “I’m created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender, but rather how we define ourselves.”

Q is a joint venture between Vice Media’s Virtue creative agency and Copenhagen Pride. For the project, the team purposefully recorded 22 transgender and non-binary people as the voice’s basis, according to Reuters.

“Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it,” Q’s website reads. “Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress.”

By creating a voice meant to be genderless, and including both trans and non-binary people in the process, the team behind Q has taken one big step towards tackling gender biases in tech.

Before launch, Q was tested by more than 4,000 volunteers, Reuters reported. About half of them said they couldn’t decipher by gender for the voice and, for the half who tried, they were evenly split between guessing if it was male or female.

“We aim to get the attention of leading technological companies that work with AI to ensure they are aware that a gender binary normativity excludes many people and to inspire them by showing how easy it would actually be to recognize that more than two genders exist when developing artificial intelligence,” Thomas Rasmussen, head of communication for Copenhagen Pride said, according to CNBC.

Right now, people can only interact with Q on a website. Hopefully, it will lead other companies to start including genderless voices in their digital assistance.