Developers Create Genderless Voice For AI, Citing Need to 'Break Down the Gender Binary'
Perhaps it's a sign of my advanced age, but I've never felt compelled to endow any of my technological gadgets with gendered pronouns, or any pronouns at all, really. On my iPhone, Siri is just "Siri," and although I prefer the "female" voice with the British accent – it's the least grating – I don't think of the assistant as either female or British. In my encounters with Amazon's Alexa, I've always felt that it sounded generically synthesized, a small step higher than early text-to-speech programs like the one heard in War Games:
Other people, it seems, have some difficulty with this, feeling unrepresented by the limitation of audiotypical (yes, that's a word now: you're welcome) male or female voices available as AI assistants. Well, thanks to a collaboration between Virtue Nordic, an arm of Vice's creative agency, social scientist Julie Carpenter, Copenhagen Pride, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive and sound studio thirtysoundsgood, there's now a genderless voice for AI. It's – and no, I'm not about to start giving pronouns to software – name is Q.
According to the collaborative's website, Q is less intended to address overlooked audiences than it is to correct what they consider archaic gender norms. "Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it," the site says on its "about" page. "Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress. 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."
Fast Company reports that Q's voice was synthesized by Virtue Nordic's Emil Asmussen and Ryan Sherman, who took a sample of voice recordings from people who identify as non-binary and combined them into a single voice that stays within the 145 Hz to 175 Hz range of audio frequencies: it falls between the higher frequencies of typical adult male speech and the lower frequencies of typical adult female speech. The result, to my ears at least, is gratingly banal at best and exceptionally annoying at its very worst: the kind of voice that would cause me to leave if I were to overhear it at excessive volume in a bar. Others, naturally, may find it less jarring. Nevertheless, Q is not intended to replace anything, but rather to augment choice. "The dream is that it's implemented as a third option for Siri and Alexa," Asmussen and Sherman told Fast Company.
If the demand for such a choice is there, then it should be met. Listen for yourself and let us know what you think. Would you prefer Q's voice to your current AI assistant's?