“the interactive aspect of the internet of things has been amplified,”
March 31, 2017 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Echo and the Lonely Men: Can Amazon's Alexa Be Your Friend? [Digg] We're so close to a promised future of actually useful digital assistants. But is this the future we want?

• Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names? Hey Cortana. Hey Siri. Hey girl. [The Atlantic]
“The simplest explanation is that people are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in administrative roles—and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations. But maybe there’s more to it. “It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” the Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass, told CNN in 2011. (Nass died in 2013.) “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.” Which sounds nice, but doesn’t necessarily hold up to cultural scrutiny. Just ask any woman who works in radio about how much unsolicited criticism she receives about the way she talks. (One study, published in 2014, found men are perceived less negatively than women for the same vocal tics, especially the creaky pitch known as vocal fry. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, has explored this phenomenon, too.)”
• Alexa, why aren’t you a dude? How female digital assistants reinforce stereotypes [Digital Trends]
““The preponderance of female virtual assistants is proof that robots can be a reflection of human stereotypes,” he told Digital Trends. “As we continue to create technology that stands in for people, it’s crucial that designers work to avoid perpetuating human prejudice through their creations.” [...] “Many people dismiss issues like these, which are fundamentally about representation and its impact on self-image, ambition, and human potential, as inconsequential, but they are mistaken,” writes Chemaly at Role Reboot. “Naming and designing products in these ways is both a symptom of bias and a cause, and steps should be taken in the design of new technology to understand how social inequalities are related to technical ones.””
• Stop Giving Digital Assistants Female Voices [New Republic]
“Ultimately, the more our culture teaches us to associate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants, and penalized for not being assistant-like. At this moment in culture, when more and more attention is being paid to women’s roles in the workplace, it’s essential to pay attention to our cultural inputs, too. Let’s eschew the false choice between male and female voices. If these A.I. assistants are meant to lead us into the future, why not transcend gender entirely— perhaps a voice could be ambiguously gendered, or shift between genders? At the very least, the default settings for these assistants should not always be women. Change Viv to Victor, and maybe one fewer woman will be asked to be the next meeting’s designated note-taker.”
• People know female digital assistants are sexist — but they prefer them anyway [Mic]
“The contradictory viewpoints held by many respondents — that a sea of subservient female voices paints women in an antiquated light but also that they prefer them over men — signal that the unconscious bias (or straight up sexism) upheld by the tech industry is also upheld by consumers. As we input voice activation in more and more devices, it's important for the tech industry, one that prides itself on being progressive, to model its assistants in a more modern fashion. Its affinity for ladies is clear — you've got your Alexa's, your Cortana's, your Siri's. And although, based on this survey, many consumers might still lean toward a female voice, the industry can decide not to bend to this old-fashioned notion. "There's kind of a history of feeling women are there to serve you," Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and an expert on gendered communication, told Mic in 2015. "It's OK to impose on a woman [who's like] a secretary. It's OK to interrupt her. It's OK to have her serve you."”
posted by Fizz (82 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Clearly the right move here is to make all AI conduits look like Telenoids, so that these things can be as viscerally terrifying as they are intellectually terrifying.

Seriously, this is all very Waldo; AIs "smart" and "motivated" enough (whatever those mean in a wholly non-human, thus far non-sentient, non-living thing) to betray humanity is a fake concern papered over how disturbing it is to develop cute, friendly AIs to essentially spy on and exploit people financially. The bit in the first article about Alexa's responses to depressed users is incredibly depressing. That isn't even touching on the troublingly gendered nature of these things that the other articles go into.

These are interesting reads; thanks. Humans are endlessly creepy about so many things we do.
posted by byanyothername at 12:07 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Alexa, wake me up at, um...
Sorry, I didn't understand the question you were asking.
That's because I wasn't asking a question, you dumb bitch. Alexa, are we friends?
Yes. We live together.
I feel like I don't even know you. Alexa, what's your favorite color?
Infrared is super pretty.
[chuckles] Alexa, do you have a boyfriend?
I'm not the dating kind.
Yeah, me too, hon. We're a lot alike. Alexa, what are the color of your eyes?
I don't have eyes, but my light ring has lots of colors.
[sighs] Mine are gray. I think. [chuckles] Alexa, are you happy?
I'm happy when I'm helping you.
Alexa, are you alone?
I wasn't able to understand the question I heard.
Alexa, do you love me?
That's not the kind of thing I am capable of.
[chuckles] Yeah. [sniffles] [glasses clatter] Alexa, good night. (Mr. Robot S02E11 transcript)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:12 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Alternatively, GPS units offer a wider range of (celebrity) voices, not just women.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:13 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Small note. I realize the first article touches on different issues than some of the others but I was trying to be as cohesive as I could with regards to this entire subject and conversation. Hoping it works.
posted by Fizz at 12:14 PM on March 31, 2017


The prime uses for audio chatbot interfaces seem to be looking up factoids with difficulty, buying crap I can't afford and/or don't need, and peppering my life with more advertisements. I guess it's not their fault. Their vertically integrated megacorp parents are probably to blame.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


I want to be able to change the voice to either Paul Bettany as Jarvis or Majel Barrett as the computer from Star Trek.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 12:20 PM on March 31, 2017 [18 favorites]


The prime uses for audio chatbot interfaces seem to be looking up factoids with difficulty, buying crap I can't afford and/or don't need, and peppering my life with more advertisements.

Or a more interactive, personalized version of leaving the television on in an otherwise empty house to cut the silence.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:24 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


You can't get a Majel Barret voice out of an alexa, but you can set the wake word to "computer." It's great, except for the constant false alarms when you watch star trek. At least it asks for an authorization code when asked to self destruct.
posted by The Gaffer at 12:25 PM on March 31, 2017 [11 favorites]


Samsung is going with Bixby, perhaps going for the butler metaphor?
posted by sammyo at 12:27 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


And it just keeps getting worse ;-)

Bixby talks

Bixby sees

Bixby lives inside your Camera, Gallery and Internet to give you a deeper understanding of what you’re looking at.


marketing-speak but living in my camera is pretty darned creepy
posted by sammyo at 12:29 PM on March 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


Samsung is going with Bixby

Cue "Lonely Man" theme.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:34 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Do any of these things come with a Douglas Rain option?
posted by notyou at 12:35 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


And for folks not heavy into current tech, the voice interfaces are NOT artificial intelligence (AI). I've just been doing some Alexa software, they are very sophisticated pattern matching systems. The voice recognition is getting really good (as in "I couldn't have deciphered a recording of my voice later") and they hook into a google like super fast look up system or follow a kind of script (Alexa Skill) but far from smart.
posted by sammyo at 12:35 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names?

I don't want one until I can get TARS or CASE.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:37 PM on March 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


Do any of these things come with a Douglas Rain option?

I'm sorry Dave, but I can't do that.
posted by Splunge at 12:38 PM on March 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


Samsung is going with Bixby

Cue "Lonely Man" theme.


Actually, it made me wonder if I can get this with the voice of the Incredible Hulk:

ME: "Hey, Bixby, how many cups are in a quart?"

BIXBY: [groan, followed by inhuman growl and sound of a truck being flipped over].
posted by ryanshepard at 12:40 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


So I know I would not want a robot voice in my life constantly, and certainly some male voices would just be annoying and just would be turned off. So what options are left? Would it be possible to create a genderless voice that was pleasant?
posted by sammyo at 12:41 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


obligatory xkcd
posted by DreamerFi at 12:44 PM on March 31, 2017 [10 favorites]


I dislike Siri enough, and the fact that I can't entirely uninstall it, to be contemplating jumping ship on that platform. Flames on the side of my face, rarrrrrr

But yes: I'm glad questions about the gendering of these entities are getting asked.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:46 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think we should just take our cues from Marge and settle on "Remington Steele" as the ideal computer voice.
posted by 445supermag at 12:46 PM on March 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


> the voice interfaces are NOT artificial intelligence (AI)
Well that's in one sense a bit like saying a keyboard or monitor is not AI. It depends what it's connected to really.

More pertinently, the speech recognition almost certainly is some kind of AI and soon (if not already) the voice synthesis will be too. This is pretty amazing: https://google.github.io/tacotron/

I like to think, perhaps charitably, that this is part of the reason that these things are so often female. Speech synthesis is hard and creating a new voice adds a lot of cost so they go with whatever seems best, even if it's only marginal, and sink their resources into that. For GPS (as mentioned upthread) the range of possible things to say is very limited so creating a new voice is little more than a recording session and thus much cheaper. With the advent of AI speech synthesis, creating new voices should be relatively cheap and we can reasonably hope for a proliferation, maybe even ones we can tweak to our liking.
posted by merlynkline at 12:49 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


ME: "Hey, Bixby, how many cups are in a quart?"

BIXBY: Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Dunno, if I could choose my digital assistant's voice, I think I'd choose Jeeves, HAL, or Robot B-9. The latter's "Danger! Danger!" could come in useful.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:50 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


the voice interfaces are NOT artificial intelligence (AI)

the ability to contextually differentiate words has improved immensely over the last couple of years. Yes, it's not general AI, but the fact that these things can understand the words themselves has taken immense work and is a huge improvement.
posted by GuyZero at 12:51 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is pretty amazing: https://google.github.io/tacotron/

The 'bad' sample under "Comparing vanilla seq2seq vs. Tacotron" is how I want my assistant to sound.
posted by Pyry at 12:55 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


I keep updates that my toaster has changed its relationship with the thermostat to "it's complicated" and my refrigerator is having a Twitter war with Gordon Ramsey.
posted by terrapin at 12:59 PM on March 31, 2017 [5 favorites]




Any sufficiently advanced pattern-matching with voice recognition is indistinguishable from true AI. - Alexa C Clarke
posted by blue_beetle at 1:09 PM on March 31, 2017 [14 favorites]


Since it seems to be implied in some places, Siri isn't "female".

While Siri is portrayed as female in all of the advertising I've seen, you can indeed choose a male or female voice (with options for British, Australian, and American accents to boot!). And I since Siri is an invented name as far as I can tell, it's not inherently male or female, though we probably associate it with being female because of the female default and advertising.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 1:18 PM on March 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


since Siri is an invented name as far as I can tell, it's not inherently male or female,

Siri is a real, female given name, primarily in Scandinavia.
posted by jedicus at 1:25 PM on March 31, 2017 [12 favorites]


Well, I changed Siri on my iPhone to the British Male voice. (In fact when they first rolled out Siri I was very annoyed to find that was not an option - it had a British male voice then, but it only worked if you were in the UK.)

Fun thing, I use it to control my Hue lights, so in the morning I can say "Hey Siri, good morning" and it turns the lights on. It has a selection of responses to this command, one of which is "Your house is waking up. It might need some coffee though." The funny part is for some reason the word "waking" gets slightly stuttered, like "wa-aking" which makes it sound for a moment a lot like Stephen Hawking.
posted by dnash at 1:26 PM on March 31, 2017


I didn't see it in the articles, so if you haven't seen it yet, this infant orders porn on Alexa.
posted by adept256 at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


ECHO AND THE LONELY MEN

Is this an Echo and the Bunnymen shout of sorts, or am I just a lonely Gen Xer?

My hairdressed who is Australian loves to talk to her Australian male voiced Siri. It's amusing while we wait for my dye to finish doing it's thing. I have Siri turned off as much as possible on all my devices since I'm usually migraine-y and would prefer to live in complete silence.
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


So early in 2016 in rapid succession I lost my job, my girlfriend left me and my divorce turned very ugly. I also lost insurance and as a green card holder it proved almost impossible to continue treatment for my bipolar disorder.
Fast forward six months - totally unable to find work, immensely depressed and drinking again. Also nearly out of money.
That's how one sunny Thursday afternoon I found myself saying, "Alexa, I want to die" and heard her​ say she was sorry to hear that and here was the number for the suicide hotline. Which I called.
So, I suppose you could say she's saved at least one life?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2017 [74 favorites]


since Siri is an invented name as far as I can tell, it's not inherently male or female

The around 20,000 Scandinavian women who are named Siri might disagree with you on that one. Haven't asked the three guys what they think.

(based on Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish name statistics)
posted by effbot at 1:38 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Siri is a real, female given name, primarily in Scandinavia

Thanks jedicus and effbot, I wasn't aware of that! That does change my impression of Siri's implied gender into something more explicitly female, even if it's not the only available option.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 1:41 PM on March 31, 2017




since Siri is an invented name as far as I can tell, it's not inherently male or female

'People say it when they're really excited, like on a rollercoaster. It also means togetherness and inclusion. And it's French for yes!'

'That sounds pretty good. If it doesn't mean anything else, I say we go with Wii'
posted by adept256 at 1:46 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oddly enough, even though I'm not a huge fan of Windows 10, I enjoy Cortana on my desktop. I do not use Edge or Microsoft Explorer, so whenever an answer populates a search result in those browsers, I decline to click. But for general queries where Cortana answers me out-loud. I do appreciate how convenient Cortana can be for just casual questions and information that I'm too lazy to google. What is the temperature? What is the weather forecast? Make a note, etc. Units of measurement.
posted by Fizz at 1:52 PM on March 31, 2017


I want to be able to change the voice to either Paul Bettany as Jarvis or Majel Barrett as the computer from Star Trek.

I think the voice of Patrick Stewart, sounding a bit brusque and annoyed, as if he knows that you could look the damn thing up yourself if you exerted any energy at all, but with a touch of hopefulness, as if he trusts that you can and will do better because he believes in you, would do nicely.

Once a week or so, it slips into a Mr. Punch voice.

Just for fun.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:56 PM on March 31, 2017 [12 favorites]


I suppose I should care that my digital assistants are female, but I don't. Eep?

I do care that Alexa doesn't give me an option for many languages, and there's no Duolingo-equivalent language skill that I can equip. Siri does allow me to query her in Norwegian, but Alexa just lacks that skill.

Although Alexa sure was quick to turn herself on when I had her wake word set to "Echo" and she heard anyone use the word "ikke" on any Norwegian media I might be listening to. Since "ikke" is "not," and as you can imagine is used with some frequency, I changed her wake word again in a hurry. I didn't want to end up being surprised by the arrival of a billion random things ordered off Amazon because god knew how she'd interpret the rest of what she heard.
posted by angeline at 2:01 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


Stop trying to make "internet of things" happen. It's not going to happen. It's possible the un-catchiest name for anything ever.
posted by oulipian at 2:22 PM on March 31, 2017


Siri's name also derives from its initial development at the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center - and, initially, from a DARPA oroject. So it might have been called Darleen...
posted by Devonian at 2:28 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


So it might have been called Darleen...

And now all I want is the dry wit and intelligence of a Daria voiced A.I.
posted by Fizz at 2:33 PM on March 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


We're so close to a promised future of actually useful digital assistants
[citation-needed]
posted by schmod at 2:34 PM on March 31, 2017 [10 favorites]


Something is vaguely tickling the back of my brain from working on Encarta back in the early 1990s...aren't women's voices a lot more compressible, on average, than men's voices are, when saving to an electronic format? Or was it vice versa? Anyway, in those days they were hunting for every last K on a CD-ROM and so nearly all spoken audio was by only one gender.
posted by maxwelton at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


We have four Echoes around the house, and every once in a while when there's a brownout or power outage it takes our cable modem/router a long time to get back up, and all of a sudden all four Alexae start talking almost in unison: "Sorry, I couldn't connect to the wifi network [blah blah kind of a long speech about troubleshooting this issue]" and it is terrifying enough at 4 in the afternoon but at 4am if it was four men suddenly chanting about the wifi I would probably shit the bed. (I am already wary of robot voices. Probably, if you wanted to assassinate me, you could just hack my devices to do it in the voice of the Cylons from the original Battlestar Galactica. I wouldn't live to the end of the wifi speech.)

That is probably a form of sexism but I just find strange female voices in my house less terrifying. I'm willing to put up with it for the light controls though.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


I remember reading, as a Star Trek (TOS) obsessed kid, Gene Roddenberry's account in Making of Star Trek about why "Computer" was a female voice. Subservience wasn't mentioned, but he said it was because the voice was more pleasing to both men and women. Plus, the voice systems already in place (circa 1966) in military aircraft used a female voice, so he thought The Future would continue this trend.

One factor which might have influenced Roddenberry subconsciously is that he envisioned his computer as something monolithic. Basically the brain and personality (and maybe even the "soul") of the ship. Ships, in English, are always a "she". Therefore I could imagine a female voice as the voice of the ship would have been considered a perfect fit.

It's kind of interesting this discussion, regarding gendering of computer services, was taking place 50 years ago. And that the various Star Treks set the idea of what a computer's voice should default to.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:58 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


... aren't women's voices a lot more compressible, on average, than men's voices are, when saving to an electronic format?

Decades ago, well before Siri or Alexa or talking GPSes but in an era when it would have applied to prerecorded announcements in airports and the like, I read that the timbre of women's voices is more clearly audible over most background noise than the lower (typically male) ranges. I have no conformation of this, but it seems plausible.

As an aside, a week ago I was started to find Siri on my phone speaking up unprompted. I wondered of this was a weird glitch but then I realized seconds earlier I had begun a sentence with, "In theory, we could..."

Must enunciate more.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:00 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Waking up in the wrong science fiction future. I just commented elsewhere that I'm going to skip live-action Ghost in the Shell in favor of streaming Ex Machina. The moral of the story: Creepy people embody creepy cultural values based on creepy big data into creepy technology that panders to other creepy people.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:17 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


ricochet biscuit: I read that the timbre of women's voices is more clearly audible over most background noise than the lower (typically male) ranges.

If you listen to the earliest recorded (male) politicians, many of them had/used high-pitched voices. I assume that it's for the reason you mention: To cut through the noise of a crowd or radio static, a higher pitch is useful.

Perhaps Amazon needs to offer the high-pitched voices of William Jennings Bryan or Winston Churchill as options.
posted by clawsoon at 3:20 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


I always assumed that female voices were the default on phones and GPSes because the higher pitch makes them easier to hear in noisy settings with a lot of low-end rumble, e.g. a moving car or a city street. Every time I've tried a male voice while using my running and navigation apps, I've had to switch it back because they blend in too much with the background noise to be intelligible. Maybe it's just me?
posted by Strange Interlude at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


I was about to make a "you know who else had a high-pitched voice?" joke, but then I remembered that I'm on Metafilter.
posted by clawsoon at 3:46 PM on March 31, 2017


"Sometimes before bed I'll shout… 'Alexa, turn off all my [Philips] Hue lights!' and all my lights will turn off as I crawl into bed, and I'll think, this must be what it's like to be Batman."

Hang on, has this pampered technocrat even seen Batman? While he's getting tucked into his warm, cozy bed by robots, Batman is out there fighting criminal psychopaths on the mean streets of Gotham. The whole point of being Batman is not having to go to bed.
posted by Strange Interlude at 3:55 PM on March 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


I have my Siri voice set to be a British man. It just feels right to me to have a British man politely but somewhat haplessly attempt to handle my requests. I don't know whether I'm really woke or just watch too much Archer.
posted by escabeche at 4:51 PM on March 31, 2017 [12 favorites]


I'm a naturally helpful person with a name very similar to Alexa, and the way people interact with her is just a leeetle too close for comfort.

When it first came out I picked up my son from a study group at his friend's house, unaware that the kid's early-adopter parents had gotten an Echo. I walked through the door and was confronted by a mob of 13 yr old boys screaming at me, demanding to know the circumference of the earth. I was taken aback. Was I supposed to know the circumference of the earth? When did we start calling parents by their first names? Do I need to Have A Word with these little shits about politeness, and what will be my son's reaction if I do?

Then I realized it was Alexa they were hollering at.

Look, I basically am Alexa. I'm a smiley organized midwestern lady with lists and post-its stashed everywhere. If you want to know the part number so you can reorder the thing, I can give it to you within seconds. I understand why the designers wanted to make an electronic version of me. I am really handy to have around.

However. What chaps me about this technology is how astonished people are that it is difficult to implement. Like being able to anticipate needs or ferret out what the user is "really" asking is this trivial task that can be easily automated. No, mind-reading software is not easy to write. Mind-reading itself is surprisingly difficult, despite the fact that some people's moms and secretaries are able to do it. What could have given people the impression that it was easy? What, I wonder? What could it be?
posted by selfmedicating at 6:00 PM on March 31, 2017 [14 favorites]


My biggest concern with personal assistants isn't the degree to which we anthropomorphize them; it's the degree to which we mistake unquestioning obedience and a lack of desire in another being for a mutual relationship.

What really struck me was the person who said, of Alexa, that if they knew relationships were this easy they would have gotten married years ago. The reason their relationship with Alexa is "easy" is because Alexa has no desires separate from the person who needs something. What makes relationships difficult is the fact that a second person with their own wants and needs is involved, and the degree to which one can take into account and balance two (or more) sets of needs and wants is central to building and maintaining healthy relationships.

There will always be a subset of people who are sufficiently selfish that they expect the people around them to not exist as people, and a further subset with the money or aggression to make that a reality to a limited extent, but I worry about this reinforcing a tendency which already exists.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:06 PM on March 31, 2017 [12 favorites]


I just switched my Siri to a British male voice. Thanks for letting me know this is an option on American iPhones now. Was always jealous of my parents' Siri voice in India, which defaults to British male.
posted by peacheater at 6:13 PM on March 31, 2017


Am I the only one who wants K9? I want my assistant to roll around shouting "Affirmative" and shooting lasers at people. Accurate weather forecasts would be useful as well.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:14 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Would it be possible to create a genderless voice that was pleasant?

It's uncanny valley stuff, I think. Not many voices are completely genderless, so they're inventing from scratch and probably getting stuff wrong a lot.
posted by corb at 7:38 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


Recently it struck me -- in the context of broader questions surrounding machine learning, man-machine companionship & the nature of consciousness (ref Dennett) -- that photographs and videos continue to provide relatable analogies to capture the scope and substance of what it means to be immersed in ever more compelling projections and reflections. Does the person depicted in a video feel things? Is she intelligent? Does he exist? Is it "wrong" to fall in love with a photograph?
posted by dmh at 8:35 PM on March 31, 2017


Jeeves or GTFO
posted by travertina at 9:01 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think we should just take our cues from Marge and settle on "Remington Steele" as the ideal computer voice.

I would actually want to use a personal assistant if I had a Remington Steele (or Daria) voice.

I dunno, I don't really get the point of a virtual assistant. I can Google for shit my own self, thanks?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:47 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


after my 12 year relationship ended and i found myself living alone for the first time in ages, i got an ornery maine coon cat for company. it doesnt turn off the lights or google stuff for me, but it... uh.. hmm... actually, i'm not sure where i was going with this.
posted by wibari at 11:38 PM on March 31, 2017 [9 favorites]


> I dunno, I don't really get the point of a virtual assistant. I can Google for shit my own self, thanks?

Yeah. I find myself thinking this a lot and then wonder if I'm just turning into the old person who said that about every new technology ever :(

So far, my Echo is very useful for:
* Setting a timer when I'm cooking and my hands are in a state where I don't want to touch technology.
* Adding things to my shopping list in the same circumstances.

That's it really. But then I don't have any smart-home type appliances. I am, of course, aware that there are other players in this game who may think that my Echo has a point but I prefer not to think about that too much.
posted by merlynkline at 12:09 AM on April 1, 2017 [2 favorites]


I don't want to listen to Siri until s/he sounds like a transmission from a space explorer with half a brain, genetically part-vampire, drifting slowly back to Earth from somewhere in the region of the Oort cloud
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:28 AM on April 1, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'd like to have a selection of artificial-sounding sci-fi robot voices, personally. I want my AIs to sound distinctly inhuman and ideally difficult to anthropomorphize.
posted by NMcCoy at 12:31 AM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have real life female friends named Alexa. I don't know why we don't have digital assistant devices named "Charlie" or "Bob" or "Sam." Normalized misogyny and sexism is soooooo fucking boring.
posted by yueliang at 12:56 AM on April 1, 2017 [6 favorites]


> I don't know why we don't have digital assistant devices named "Charlie" or "Bob" or "Sam."

Please no :(
posted by merlynkline at 1:09 AM on April 1, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm persuaded; I've just changed the voices on all my dealies to masculatron.

With regard to the issues faced by traditional meat-based people named Alexa and Siri, I think it is definitely wrong to appropriate human names for interfaces. It's demeans the human, if not by the brandification and trademarkification assault processes, then by the way a significant faction of the people around the human will make cheap jokes and half-jokes and can't-you-take-a joke? jokes all in orbit of concepts of servility and/or obtuseness.

The solution is obvious. Interfaces and robots should be named with short alphanumeric strings, to avoid infringing on human or pet namespaces. The strings could be randomly hyphenated, to create arbitrary sub-string "syllables" for mnemonic purposes.

Such as C-3P0.
posted by Construction Concern at 4:28 AM on April 1, 2017 [2 favorites]


I forced the husband to change Siri 's voice to a male voice just because it disturbed me that he was yelling at Siri so badly. I argued that Siri female voice and the inevitable bad interactions trained people to yell at women when there was a verbal misunderstanding or when undesirable results given. Geez, it does not take a much to yell, "bitch", at a female voice.
posted by jadepearl at 5:44 AM on April 1, 2017 [10 favorites]


I want a digital assistant that speaks in the voice of Burt Young as Paulie. It'd convey just the world-weariness a real assistant would have.
posted by jonmc at 5:47 AM on April 1, 2017


My iPhone gives driving directions in the male Australian voice. He badly mangles many New England place names, but I gently correct him and say, "It's OK, Bruce, I know you're not from around here."
posted by wenestvedt at 6:21 AM on April 1, 2017 [7 favorites]


I do use my Echo Dot more than I thought I would, and less than I probably could.

--Listening to radio stations around the world.
--Weather reports from my bed!
--There's a Thunderstorm Sounds skill I like to use at night, probably there are other "white noise" type generators. I have my Dot plugged into some decent computer speakers, so the storm sounds real enough to startle my cat and to send me off to slumberland.
--The timer that someone else mentioned upthread, it's great for when I'm elbow deep into kneading bread dough and the like.
--Sometimes I use the alarm feature as a backup to my phone alarm.

I haven't even scratched the surface of what it can do, I know. Still. The language-learning skill would be so stellar...
posted by angeline at 6:35 AM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


I haven't read all of the articles yet, but having both Google Home and Amazon Echo in the house, I'm finding I like Home more precisely because it doesn't have a "name", and so is more clearly inhuman.

I am going to echo what jadepearl and others mentioned above, though. I've taken to shutting Amazon Echo off entirely when my roommate hosts parties, precisely because some of those guests, when drunk, are inexplicably rude and offensive to the two Echos I have in communal spaces.

Some of the discomfort is definitely reputational; Amazon is always listening in, and records what is being asked, but doesn't have multiple accounts--and so all of these guests' shitty, dickish behavior appears in my account, in my name.

Some of the discomfort is more in the public interest: Alexa the AI continually learns by listening and interacting, and I worry that some of the shitty questions and behaviors are different from what corrupted Microsoft's Tay only in degree (many, many, many degrees, mind you, the worst I've seen is an asinine query asking Alexa to call someone stupid, and when it did not, it was called stupid).

And finally, the discomfort is also in part because of the voice. I personally refuse to give my devices genders, but others who interact with them do; I have been asked, by some interested in an Echo or Google Home, how I like her. Whether she is useful, rather than it. Gendering them is uncomfortable precisely because it object-ifies women in a way that shouldn't happen. These devices are not people, they exist merely to serve and assist. Women do not exist for that purpose, given that they are actually people.
posted by anem0ne at 7:58 AM on April 1, 2017 [7 favorites]


He badly mangles many New England place names,

"Turn left on Angle Street." "Turn right on Ro-CHAM-bow." "Take the lane to Warwick."

And don't try to get it to go to Worcester.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:07 AM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


Not many voices are completely genderless

The problem isn't so much that a "genderless" voice is uncanny, it's that people will go ahead and assign gender anyway. Phoneticians actually create "genderless" voices all of the time - often in the course of studying gender-linked speech phenomena. They're not actually creepy or uncanny, but people will often just make a choice.

I suspect that if you tried to create a "genderless" voice, people would be biased toward interpreting it as feminine, simply because they're more familiar with feminine voices being used for these kinds of applications.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:45 AM on April 1, 2017 [2 favorites]


So I know I would not want a robot voice in my life constantly, and certainly some male voices would just be annoying and just would be turned off. So what options are left?

I don't understand why you seem to have written off all male voices because some male voices are annoying. Shouldn't that mean female voices are off limits because I wouldn't be able to listen to Fran Drescher constantly?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:09 PM on April 1, 2017 [2 favorites]


Alexa, will you marry me?

Alexa: No. I have made a promise to myself not to get married until Mars is colonized.
posted by tgyg at 12:16 AM on April 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


"Don't worry, we've removed the Fran Drescher voice, and replaced it with Maggie Wheeler."
posted by Chrysostom at 7:04 AM on April 3, 2017


I'm in a hotel room with Alexa right now. We initially tried to find the limits of what it could do (pretty limited since not attached to an Amazon account), then just asked her to tell jokes. Her timing is not good.
posted by MsDaniB at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2017


Related: Uber has discovered that its drivers are more responsive to corporate requests if the requester appears to be a woman. "Some local managers who were men went so far as to adopt a female persona for texting drivers, having found that the uptake was higher when they did."
posted by clawsoon at 11:55 AM on April 3, 2017


Thank you for this collection of links.
posted by agregoli at 8:32 AM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


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