Science and Tech

Worlds’ first non-binary voice assistant is here to take on Siri and Alexa – and to combat misogyny while they’re at it

Lily Wakefield December 17, 2020
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A Google Home smart speaker, which features the feminised voice of Google Assistant. (Getty/ Joseph Branston/T3 Magazine/Future)

Sam, the first non-binary voice assistant, has been introduced by researchers to take on Siri and Alexa.

Accenture Labs and Edinburgh-based text-to-speech technology provider CereProc have teamed up to create a non-binary AI voice, providing representation for queer people and challenging voice assistant gender biases.

According to a report this year by Juniper Research, consumers will have interacted with voice assistants on 4.2 billion devices by the end of 2020, and this figure is set to reach 8.4 billion by 2024.

The world of voice assistants has long been dominated by female voices, most famously Siri and Alexa, but research has shown that they reinforce gender bias. 

A 2019 report by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) said: “The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility.

“In many communities, this reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment.”

To develop the voice of Sam, according Insider, Accenture interviewed non-binary folk and used their surveys and audio clips to create accurate speech patterns, work choice and pitch. Cereproc then translated these findings to a text-to-speech model using AI technology.

Marc Carrel-Billiard, Accenture’s senior managing director and technology innovation lead, said: “While gender-neutral voice samples have been released previously, Sam is the first non-binary AI-based digital voice solution that can be embedded into any software solution to speak text in a human-sounding voice.”

CereProc CEO Paul Welham added: “One of our key aims since inception has been to empower application designers to disrupt the status quo in speech; with this non-binary voice we wish to raise awareness of this important issue in the next generation of AI-based digital voice systems that are developed.”

Researchers are also working with Heriot-Watt University to look at how voice assistants can be designed to reduce issues of gender bias.

To encourage companies to use Sam’s voice, materials have been released to the Open Source community.

Last year, UNESCO released a report titled I’d Blush if I Could, named after the response previously given by Apple’s Siri when users called the digital assistant a “slut”. Now, Siri “won’t respond to that”.

As artificial intelligence becomes more widely used and more human, the report argued “that the female projection of voice assistants often sends negative messages about girls and women”.

Other feminised voice assistants, which media organisations often refer to using she/her pronouns, include Microsoft’s Cortana (named after AI in the video game Halo that projects itself as a sensuous unclothed woman) and Google Assistant.


More: Alexa, non-binary, technology

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