Voice assistants such as Siri, Cortana, and Alexa typically reply to commands in a female voice. While most voice assistants offer the option to switch to a male voice, there are some who believe that these AIs are enforcing gender stereotypes. This is why a team of linguists, sound designers, and computer science researchers invented Q — the world’s first genderless voice assistant.
The voice of Q began as recordings of people who identify with neither gender, which were then digitally altered into a frequency range between 145 Hz and 175 Hz. According to researchers, this audio range falls right between male and female voices. Besides the pitch, the recordings’ tone and format filter were altered to achieve a gender-neutral voice. This was actually very tricky work because the brain can immediately pick up on sounds that are artificially pitched up or down.
After making several variants and receiving feedback from over 4,500 people, the researchers settled for a voice that sounded neutral to most people. By now, you must be curious how Q sounds — try it out below.
“Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it. Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress,” a description on Q’s website reads.
“As society continues to break down the gender binary, recognising those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.”
“Q is an example of what we hope the future holds; a future of ideas, inclusion, positions and diverse representation in technology.”
It’s no coincidence that tech companies have chosen female names (In Old Norse, Siri means “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory”) and default female voicing for their AI-driven assistants. Past research has shown that people prefer a male voice when it comes to authority and a female’s voice for assistance.
The creators of Q, however, argue that people might just be reacting to stereotypes. There’s no evidence that people are biologically hard-wired to respond to male and female voices in a certain manner. If our psychological reactions to female and male voices are culturally driven, then designing technology around gender stereotypes does nothing but enforce them.
A genderless voice assistant seems like a step in the right direction for inclusiveness — but is the world ready for it? The creators of Q are urging people to bring their idea to the attention of the biggest tech companies like Google and Apple such that, in the future, a genderless voice option can be selected for their voice assistants. In fact, perhaps a genderless voice should become the default setting.