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Alexa: Tell me why artificial intelligence is sexist

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Hollie Richardson
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Siri and Alexa are sexist

The latest technology news shows that a lack of women in STEM roles means virtual assistants including Siri and Alexa are entrenched in gender bias. 

Virtual assistants are a thing of the future. In fact, scratch that – they are a thing of the right now.

Over 100 million devices with Alexa on them have been sold, it was reported earlier this year. And, Apple said just last year that 500 million people use Siri on their devices.

Beginning as early as next year, many people are expected to have more conversations with digital voice assistants than with their spouse.

These digital assistants help us schedule appointments, do the weekly food shop, find new information and…well, do pretty much anything in an instant.

Discussions around companies choosing female voices for these services have been debated before, and new research has now prompted a new feminist question to be included in the conversation:

Are virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana sexist?

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A new report conducted by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) suggests that virtual assistants reflect, reinforce and spread gender bias.

It explains that they send messages about how women and girls should respond to requests and express themselves. Women are the “face” of glitches and errors that result from the limitations of hardware and software designed predominately by men. And the synthetic “female” voice and personality defer questions and commands to higher (and often male) authorities.

The report also suggest that the assistants model acceptance of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

Person using Siri
Are Siri and Alexa really sexist?

“The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them,” said Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO’s Director for Gender Equality.

This highlights how crucial it is to include more women in the development of AI technology.

Today women make only 12 % of AI researchers, represent only 6 % of software developers, and are 13 times less like to file an ICT patent than men.

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UNESCO recommends that gender inequalities in AI must be addressed by starting with more gender-equal digital skills education and training.

It’s calling for the end of making digital assistants female by default and exploring the feasibility of developing a neutral machine gender for voice assistants that is neither male nor female.

Other recommendations include programming digital assistants to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language, encouraging interoperability so that users can change digital assistants as desired, and requiring that operators of AI-powered voice assistants announce the technology as non-human at the outset of interactions with human users.

There are already so many incredible females working in STEM roles, but clearly we need to see even more. 

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