March marked Women’s History Month, and so it made perfect sense that NASA planned on executing the first all-female spacewalk in history right before the month was over (in case you aren’t familiar with the term, spacewalk is when astronauts go outside the spacecraft and enter into floating space). But just as the world was gearing up to witness astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch undertake this historical spacewalk outside the International Space Station, NASA had to abort the mission, and the all-female spacewalk never took place.
As absurd as it sounds, the reason behind this last-minute change of plan was the absence of two female spacesuits in the right size for both Koch and McClain, and in light of this shortage, Christina Koch did the spacewalk alongside fellow male astronaut Nick Hague, while Anne McClain had no choice but to assist them from inside the station.
The two astronauts were set to install lithium-ion batteries for the space station’s solar arrays, and in order to do so, they realised they both needed a medium-sized Hard Upper Torso (HUT), which is the upper part of a spacesuit. Unfortunately though, there was only one available for use. The understandable and expected public backlash didn’t take long to reach NASA’s PR office, and on Tuesday March 26, the agency tweeted, “We’ve seen your tweets about spacesuit availability for Friday’s spacewalk. To clarify, we have more than 1 medium size spacesuit torso aboard, but to stay on schedule with @Space_Station upgrades, it’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits.”
According to NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz, spacewalks are the most physically challenging performances astronauts have to undergo—it goes without saying that it is necessary for the spacesuits to fit perfectly. As NASA stated, it’s clear that the crew made the safest and most convenient decision for the operation, but this event brought to the surface an ongoing issue regarding NASA’s gender imbalance. The truth is that the space agency is still using the same spacesuits that were designed and produced 40 years ago, when women astronauts were just starting to be accepted into the profession (Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983).
“Some groups initially assumed that women could fit in the same sizes as small men—or at worst, that some of the men’s sizes would have to be scaled down proportionately to fit women,” wrote NASA design engineer Elizabeth Benson in a 2009 paper. It’s hard not to react with astonishment to NASA’s oversight on the importance of an adequately fitting female spacesuit, and to feel a grave disappointment towards the lost opportunity of making such a memorable female-only spacewalk because of an ongoing failure to truly cater to all genders equally.
“It’s likely to be a woman, the first next person on the moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman. So these are great days,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Let’s hope that Bridenstine’s prediction will indeed become a reality. But first, the agency certainly needs to produce suits that can fit more than just the men they were initially designed for.
‘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.
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.