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IoT has a new voice, and it’s genderless

By Sofia Gallarate

Mar 18, 2019

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‘Can we give technology a new voice?’ asks the introduction of the video presentation of Q, the first genderless voice in an otherwise binary landscape of AI voice assistants. A Denmark-based group of linguists, technologists, and sound designers thinks so, that’s why they embarked on a mission to create the first gender-neutral voice that can potentially be implemented within IoT devices and services.

As it fluidly oscillates between higher and lower pitches, the soothing voice of Q is not attributable to neither a male or a female identity. Q’s developers—a team born out of a collaboration between Copenhagen Pride, Virtue (Vice’s creative agency), and Equal AI—began by recording the voices of more than 20 people identifying as male, female, transgender and non-binary. After merging all these voices together, they then identified what audio researchers consider a neutral frequency range—which sits between 145 and 175 hertz. The new voice sample was then tested by over 4,000 people who gave their feedback, and by tweaking the modulation of the voice to match that specific middle range, and also accordingly to the testers’ inability to attribute the voice to a gender, Q was finally here. 

Q was created to challenge the gender bias that is present in the AI tools that aid, and that are becoming more ubiquitous to personal assistant devices. We are all accustomed to Alexa’s smooth female voice as well as Siri’s default feminine tones. And it’s no coincidence that our domestic and personal devices all speak with a female voice: their role is to make us feel helped, comfortable and intimately connected with the device. On the contrary, security and public space robots often have a male voice, which is supposed to deliver authority and distance. In this regard and in many ways, despite its limitless ability to be whatever we make it, AI is perpetuating the same gender stereotypes still very much present in everyday life.

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Q is still at an early stage as it doesn’t yet have an AI framework that activates it. But to build one is the team’s next goal. As robots, AI assistants, and more generally IoT will increasingly communicate with us via the voice, it’s worth asking ourselves the question of how we can erase the bias in technology from the start. “Q adds to a global discussion about who is designing gendered technology, why those choices are made, and how people feed into expectations about things like trustworthiness, intelligence, and reliability of a technology based on cultural biases rooted in their belief system about groups of people”, said advisor to the project Julie Carpenter, a researcher at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group.

There is no doubt that Q could challenge some of the bias currently present in our technology, but it also speaks of the potential of tech to become a tool for experimenting and challenging the stereotypes that we still find hard to break IRL. Much of the fear associated with AI is fuelled by the belief that we will not be able to control it as much as it will be able to control us; that it could harm more than it could help. But at the same time we now have the knowledge and the capacity to shape AI to be better—not only at controlling us—but at being more progressive than we currently are.

As the voice continues to be a prominent feature in both present and future technologies, taking the time to reflect on what type of voice should technology have in the first place, appears to be not only a logical, but rather a necessary progression towards shaping AI to be as, or even more, inclusive than our society.