Move over, Alexa. Sayonara, Siri! Meet Q, the world’s first genderless voice assistant.
With the influx of smartphones and smart home gadgets over the past decade, companies like Google, Amazon, Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft have all created voice assistants for their products to help users answer questions, make appointments, and remember tasks.
But while these companies continue competing against each other to see whose voice assistant reigns superior, a lesser-known contender has swooped in with an innovation that bumps them to the top.
Virtue, a creative agency, alongside collaborators Equal AI, Copenhagen Pride, Koalition Interactive, and thirtysoundsgood, has developed the first gender-neutral voice assistant, Q.
What is a genderless voice assistant?
While all voice assistants are fueled by artificial intelligence, some of the actual “voices” users hear were recorded by voice actors. Siri, for instance, is voiced by Canadian voice-over artist Susan Bennett. Cortana is voiced by American voice actress Jen Taylor. Google Assistant, Bixby, and Alexa, however, are computer-generated voices. Despite the latter three not being actual human speech, all voice assistants’ “voices” were derived from female voice recordings and compiled into a computer-generated sound that mimics human speech patterns.
So when it comes to a “genderless” voice assistant, you might ask – what is that and why now?
Recently, it has been commonplace to hear about people who identify as gender-neutral or non-binary, meaning they do not conform to strict masculine or feminine standards of gender identity; instead, they practice gender neutrality or fluidity, which can take form in how a person dresses and speaks.
But how does this factor into the creation of a genderless voice assistant?
There is existing proof that under the umbrella term of artificial intelligence (by which voice assistants are fueled), there is evidence of bias. However, much of this bias has been found with facial recognition software more than voice recognition software. Still, bias in artificial intelligence exists simply because AI voice assistants are – first and foremost – manmade.
Many tech companies often “gender” their voice assistants because they believe that humanizing an artificially intelligent being instills trust and comfort for the user. However, this thought process just reinstills gender biases regardless of if the voice assistant sounds male or female.
Thus, in order to eliminate bias and bring a sense of acceptance to non-binary people, Virtue developed a voice assistant whose speaking tone is indistinguishable from strict male or female characteristics, ambiguous enough that it can be considered genderless.
How was genderless voice “Q” created?
Virtue notes that Q was created by recording voices of people from different gender identities: male, female, transgender, and non-binary, and then testing the recordings on a group of 4,600 people across Europe. Participants in the study were then asked to rank the voices from one to five, with five being a “female-sounding” voice and one being a “male-sounding” voice. After gauging participant responses, Virtue modified Q’s voice and re-tested it again and again until the modulation was largely perceived as genderless.
After multiple alterations of pitch and tone of the melded voice(s), researchers discovered that the frequency range between 145-175 hertz was deemed gender neutral. Unsurprisingly, higher frequencies tend to be labeled “female” where lower frequencies tend to be labeled “male.”
You be the judge. When you listen to Q’s voice, what do you hear? Is it distinctly gender-neutral, or do you still attribute a gender to the AI voice assistant?
In the video above, you can hear that Q’s voice is ambiguous enough to indicate gender-neutrality. Some may argue that Q sounds feminine or masculine depending on personal interpretations, but overall, Q’s voice is genuinely genderless. Soft-spoken with an amalgamated “accent” reminiscent of Australian, British, and American English, Q provides listeners with a soothing, yet informative voice that could realistically become an option for future smartphones and other voice assistants.
Virtue’s goal in developing Q
The goal behind Q’s development is not only to make a more universally accepting virtual assistant, but also to influence enterprise tech companies to get on board with gender neutrality and integrating it into their voice assistants in the near future. It is important to be inclusive for all gender identities, and Q is one way to start. Instead of gendering AI voice assistants, Virtue is striving to eliminate gendered technology as an overall step towards eliminating gender biases.
Gendered AI reinforces biases about gender roles in society outside of the tech sphere.
Think about it – voice assistants are akin to personal assistants, which are reminiscent of secretaries in offices. Historically, office secretaries who mark down appointments and schedule meetings and remind their (often male) bosses have been female. In essence, having voice assistants mimic female speech patterns and tones is just one example of how societally, we unconsciously reinstate harmful gender roles and biases in real life – and are continuing to do so with AI voice assistants.
With this in mind, Q now exists as a prototype by which other tech companies can model future versions of their voice assistants. The positive hype behind Q is an assurance that genderless technology is a step in the right direction and the way of the world to come.
What’s next for Q?
Virtue is making waves with the creation of Q. Fittingly so, there’s no better time than 2019 to create an artificially-intelligent voice assistant whose voice is both genderless and universally appealing.
Don’t be surprised if you see Apple, Amazon, and the other key players introduce their own versions of Q later this year!
AI machines and voice assistants learn from their human developers. In order to have a more inclusive virtual experience, it’s important to have an inclusive reality. Read up on eliminating unconscious bias in your workspace to familiarize yourself with forms of bias and how to avoid them.
Rebecca Reynoso is the Senior Editor and Guest Post Program Manager at G2. She also works as a freelance editor and writer for a few small- and medium-sized tech companies. Outside of work, Rebecca enjoys watching hockey, cooking, and spending time with her family and cat. (she/her/hers)