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Siri’s Sex Change

imagesI don’t have Siri, and so my experience of Apple’s virtual personal assistant is limited to eavesdropping on my friends’ iPhones. But it has struck me as fascinating that the voice for several years was a woman’s, at least in this country. Despite the impression that a female avatar would be “less knowledgeable,” than a male, according to the Stanford researcher Clifford Nass, Apple’s initial roll-out was given a female voice because female voices are preferred in the “helper or assistant role.” The exception, at least at first, was in France and in Britain, where users apparently go for knowledge over subservience. But the female avatar is ubiquitous enough to have spawned at least one Hollywood movie, Spike Jonze’s new “neo-classic boy-meets-operating-system romance,” Her.

These days, users can change Siri’s voice to male or female at their pleasure. Now there’s a social-science project in the making. Will more of us opt for the authoritative male voice, or the soothing female one? Will we want so-called male language, which apparently privileges exact numbers (two, five) or female language, which apparently waxes vague (some, a few)? Am I the only one who finds such assumptions about voice pitch and word choice a little disturbing?

In Japanese phone-answering systems, automated male voices get the responsible business, like executing stock transactions, but female voices field the majority of the initial queries. In fact, Japan’s chief marker of gender doesn’t lie with the virtual avatar, but with the thousands of real human beings who make up the bulk of professional phone respondents. Every year, the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition yields a consensus on the ideal voice for fielding customer queries and complaints. Almost all the more than 12,000 contestants are female, and among them, higher voices are deemed more desirable. Delicate phrasing, the right balance of friendliness, and an overarching politeness complete the profile. This year, the winner, Kiyomi Kusunoki, did not speak “in a squeaky voice,” which I take as a sign of progress, but men are a long way from grabbing this particular prize.

One thing seems certain: If enough of us start opting for a male voice on our hand-held devices and GPS systems, Siri will no longer be called “sassy.” Nor probably will he or she (perhaps, at last, we should use ze) be called Siri, a name that originated with one of the inventors of the virtual voice, who named his daughter after “the beautiful woman who leads you to victory.” (In the U.K., the male voice has long been known as Daniel, meaning “God is my judge.”) Most alarming for its inventors, the virtual voice may devolve into, well, what it is: a technology rather than a personality, as the researcher Leila Takayama has explained.

And, we might add, a technology developed by folks who rely a great deal on common perceptions of what it means to be, and to express oneself as, male or female. Breaking new grounds in gender expectations is not, in this case, the destination on the virtual map.

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