UN finds Siri and Alexa reinforce sexist stereotypes

A UN report released by UNESCO this week raised concerns that activated digital assistants including Siri and Alexa reinforce sexist stereotypes.

According to the culture and science organisation, female-voiced assistants operated by Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have been found to perpetuate gender stereotypes due to their “hard-wired subservience”.

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The report, which is called “I’d Blush If I Could” in reference to the standard answer Siri gives when hearing a sexual insult from users, said millions of people around the world are becoming accustomed to commanding female-voiced assistants that are “servile, obedient and unfailingly polite”, even when confronted with harassment from humans.

“Siri’s ‘female’ obsequiousness — and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women — provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,” the report found.

UNESCO recommends that tech companies stop making digital assistants female by default, and instead program them to discourage gender-based insults or abusive language. 

Voice assistants have quickly become embedded into many people’s everyday lives and they now account for nearly one-fifth of all internet searches, said the report, which argued they can have a significant cultural impact.

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” said Unesco’s director for gender equality Saniye Gulser Corat.

“The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them,” Gulser Corat added.

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