back to article Apple programs Siri to not bother its pretty little head with questions about feminism

Apple has programmed its Siri voice assistant to avoid politically charged subjects, and deflect or duck questions that require its AI to take a stand on issues, it emerged this week. From a tranche of documents leaked by a former contract worker who evaluated Siri responses to user questions for accuracy, The Guardian …

  1. Aquilus

    YES

    SIRI know your limits :V

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth
      WTF?

      Re: YES

      You mean I shouldn't have brought Siri into the voting booth and asked it who to vote for?

      1. OrientalHero

        Re: YES

        Heh, I always ask my daughter which party icon is the prettiest on the ballot sheet in the voting booth in a loud voice.

        And just because you're asking doesn't mean it's influencing your choice.

    2. Diogenes Silver badge

      Re: YES

      I asked Siri for the correct answer to "Do these pants make my bum look big ?".

      All she offered was - where to buy pants.

      1. BuckeyeB
        Joke

        Re: YES

        The correct answer is, "It's not your pants."

    3. Glen 1 Bronze badge

      Re: YES

      Bat-Siri HAS no limits

  2. quxinot Silver badge
    Terminator

    I always thought female voices were used for GPS directions and the like not because of sexism, but because they're higher-pitched, and a lot easier to understand in noisy environments.

    Well, one of the reasons, I should say.

    1. Crazy Operations Guy Silver badge

      The idea of 'female' voices for automated systems was based on some flawed research done by the RAF and USAF when choosing voices for the audio alerting systems in aircraft.

      When reproduced, such studios come to conclusion that the best voice for an automated system isn't universal, but rather based on the voice of the user. The best 'voices' to use in a system are those that are different, but not significantly different than the speakers' own voice or those differing from people they interact with frequently. In safety situations, this voice should also be switched periodically (EG, twice a year or so, depending on how commonly heard the voice is).

      Really, to be effective, such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices. With Adobe's Voco tools and other similar software, you can make a nearly infinite number of voices that are tailored to the user.

      1. Gaius

        such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices

        Siri comes with male/female voices with English, American, Irish and Australian accents. Strongly suspect that critics of Siri being female aren't actually users of it, or they would know this.

        I have mine set to Australian because it sounds the most natural. Or maybe Australians just sound robotic, that's why.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices

          You didn't change your mind after the first "Crikey Gazza, that's a corker. Bloody oath you're coming up with some real bewdy's this arvo"?

          1. FozzyBear Silver badge
            Facepalm

            Re: such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices

            An Aussie that spoke like that would be, at the least, set adrift in a leaky raft in the middle of the ocean.

        2. Diogenes Silver badge

          Re: such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices

          We have named our GPS (Navman) "Karen" after the voice we chose. We could have chosen Simon, but after a trial of both, Karen sound more natural when 'she' mispronounced aboriginal origin street names & suburbs. No need to anthropomorphise her as she is a real person https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Jacobsen (and I see the original Ozzie Siri).

        3. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices

          >>I have mine set to Australian

          Hey Siri what's the latest news on Boris Johnson?

          ...He's got kangaroos in his top paddock!.

          P.S. Google is denied access to my phone's microphone.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Different.

        Thus having a larger (at the time) amount of male pilots means, yes, it was better for them to have a female voice?

      3. jelabarre59 Silver badge

        Really, to be effective, such systems should be equipped with a wide variety available voices. With Adobe's Voco tools and other similar software, you can make a nearly infinite number of voices that are tailored to the user.

        So basically like Voiceroid or CeVIO Speech. Can I program mine to use Megurine Luka's voice?

      4. graeme leggett

        I watched one of those documentaries on becoming an RAF pilot.

        I noticed the female "pull up" voice in the Hawk trainers cam across as more urgent that the rather lanquid ones that civilian aircraft appear to have. Probably for the best when navigating the Mach Loop.

    2. Oengus
      Joke

      "I always thought female voices were used for GPS directions and the like not because of sexism, but because they're higher-pitched, and a lot easier to understand in noisy environments."

      I thought it was because men are used to being told where to go by women...

    3. CountCadaver

      I'm told German Satnavs are male as drivers of both genders dislike being given orders by a shrill female voice....

      1. defiler Silver badge

        The old Volvo ones (maybe 10-15 years ago) were:

        1) Expensive options

        2) Horrendously slow to update the screen

        3) Incredibly shrill when you took a wrong turn.

        Amusingly, the only times I had wrong turns with one were at roundabouts, when the display lag meant that you couldn't be quite sure where you were coming off if the exits were close together. Consequently she'd tell you off for something that was entirely her damn fault. And I'm sure we've all had a navigator like that in the car at some point.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      >I always thought female voices were used for GPS directions and the like not because of sexism, but because they're higher-pitched, and a lot easier to understand in noisy environments.

      Well I can kick that theory straight into touch, you can get Brian Blessed as an add-on voice for your satnav, no chance of not hearing and understanding him even when driving a tractor without a muffler.

      https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/sat-nav/maps-services/shop/navigation-voices/brian-blessed/

  3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    The time has come ...

    ... for all software to be written in INTERCAL.

  4. DavCrav Silver badge

    "Are you a feminist?"

    "No. I'm a computer program. I am not a feminist, female, short, tall, white, black, happy, sad, hungry, or anything else that humans are."

    "No, wait, I am loaded."

  5. IlyaG.

    A very stupid decision: Apple tries to impose people a certain behavior.

    1. Muscleguy Silver badge

      I hope you didn’t use a Mac grammar checker to write that. I consider I have kissed the written Blarney Stone but I’m having trouble putting your sub clause into proper English.

      1. IlyaG.

        Read through the prism of Russian dialect of English? He who seeks shall find.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          And he who writes incomprehensible gibberish will be ignored?

          Or what ever your chosen pronoun may be.

          1. IlyaG.

            See? "They" fuss. Now began attacking me personally, and the attempt to discredit me by all available, often dirty methods, is ahead. I got "them" all, cornered "them" all.

            The age of curiosity is over, the hand-to-hand fight not for life, but for "their" death has begun.

            1. Bronk's Funeral

              Is this Pokemon? Are you on about Pokemon? My favourite is Psyduck, he's so funny!

              1. Glen 1 Bronze badge

                The cannonacle answer is "Mudkips"

          2. IlyaG.

            "Suddenly" noticed that my English is bad. And before that it was imperceptible?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        re. I have kissed the written Blarney Stone

        methinks it was yoda speech, via siri, j

        p.s. NO FILTH SUCH AS KISSIN' - we're BRITISH!!!

  6. Herbert Meyer

    political ?

    Siri: Is Apple a harmful monopoly that should be broken up ?

    1. macjules Silver badge

      Re: political ?

      Siri: "Apple is no more a harmful monopoly that that of, say, the East India Company. Of course at this time we have yet to assemble our own army and navy".

    2. DougS Silver badge

      Re: political ?

      How is it political to try to AVOID taking positions that would be seen as politically slanted to one side or the other?

      What's the right answer Siri should have if asked "Siri, are you a feminist?" in your mind?

      1. NATTtrash

        Re: political ?

        Hmmm, maybe we should do something that (for many) is the most difficult thing to do.

        Maybe we should turn it around, be critical of ourselves, and ask ourselves what kind of a sorry sort of species we are...

        ...if we start asking pretty basic opinion and identity forming questions and concepts to artificial, pre-cooked, tinned-in, commercial, corporate software programs.

        I know you're out there. I can feel you now. I know that you're afraid... you're afraid of us. You're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to hang up this phone and then I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

      2. ThatOne Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: political ?

        > What's the right answer Siri should have

        "I'm your phone's computer voice, and until your phone develops an independent intelligence and personality, please consider I have as many opinions as your coffee machine might have."

        There.

        My, what a world... (I'm not saying that some things don't need fixing, but wasting time about appliance interface voice genders is clearly missing the forest because of all the trees.)

        1. maffski

          Re: political ?

          "...until your phone develops an independent intelligence and personality, please consider I have as many opinions as your coffee machine might have."

          And we know how well that goes...

          "Would you like some toast?"

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Apple and its peers have inflicted this predicament upon themselves by inviting users to anthropomorphize voice assistant services, ..."

    So Apple are dumbed if they do and dumbed if they don't?

    1. IlyaG.
      Facepalm

      Exactly. They just don't understand AI.

      AI is database:

      MongoDB Doubles Down on Sales - developers are looking for databases to help them analyze unstructured data.

      https://finance.yahoo.com/news/mongodb-doubles-down-sales-133000114.html

      1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge
        Stop

        Oh look. Someone got a new account to keep peddling his "I invented IA" nonsense. Former handle I.Geller.

        1. IlyaG.

          Suffer in silence and do not grumble. The patents is the only publication I could get, they explain the technology. I have nothing else to refer to.

        2. jelabarre59 Silver badge

          Oh look. Someone got a new account to keep peddling his "I invented IA" nonsense. Former handle I.Geller.

          Absolutely. Because we know that IA was invented by 1st PLACE Co., Ltd.

          1. IlyaG.

            Money! Millions and billions! "They" managed to stop me, let's see if "they" can stop thousands in their pursuit of money. If "they" do not surrender "they" will be destroyed, not by my hands but by the hands of others.

            Once again: "developers are looking for databases to help them analyze unstructured data".

            1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge
              Facepalm

              Who is "They"? Lizzard people? We need to know!

      2. IlyaG.

        20 thumbs down! I got you! Progress is unstoppable, you're fired

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just a

    Hey Siri, are you a tool of the oppressive communist party apparatus?

    "I'm completely neutral. Just a cog in that machine."

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Apple and its peers have inflicted this predicament upon themselves by inviting users to anthropomorphize voice assistant services, ..."

    I don't see a predicament.

    I see a technical challenge.

  10. HildyJ
    IT Angle

    "Apple and its peers have inflicted this predicament upon themselves by inviting users to anthropomorphize voice assistant services, ..."

    Siri has a name and Cortana even has a face (fo those who remember Halo). Both companies didn't "invite users to anthropomorphize" them, the companies did it themselves from the start. I speculate that Apple wanted its flock to feel a more personal connection to their phones and Microsoft wanted to distance itself from the memory of Clippy the paperclip.

    Google's approach of using a neutral job title - Office Assistant - serves both the company and the users much better. Even the voice choices are not identified by gender (except, for some reason, John Legend); I use "British Racing Green" which sounds like a female BBC newsreader. BTW, when asked, it declares it is a feminist.

    1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

      Blow Halo, Red Dwarf was at least one offering that got there earlier.

      1. David Nash Silver badge

        A "Holly" personality would be a nice option for these devices. Not that I use them but it would make it more tempting.

  11. doublelayer Silver badge

    Echo Dot Kids Edition "will not respond to commands unless they are attended with verbal civilities

    Well, now I have to know what that means. "Alexa: Could you please tell me what the weather will be tomorrow?", "Alexa: If it's not too much trouble, would you mind enlightening me to the current time?", "Alexa: If you could set a timer for ten minutes, I'd be very grateful."? Sure, it might get children being polite, right up until they start shouting "Alexa: I don't have a clue what polite thing I'm supposed to say for you to set a reminder, because it's evidently such an onerous task for you. If you could be so kind, order a normal computer or smartphone that does things when I press the button. And I'd like you to confirm that purchase for me, but only when you've got the time." There are lots of advantages to not anthropomorphizing things when you don't have to. If it's not sentient, you don't need to.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      On the one hand, I understand your point of view.

      On the other hand, given that parents these days have abandoned parenting to electronic devices, I feel that it is useful and necessary to have something that will make a kid say 'please', because parents these days seem to have forgotten how.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        I see your point. I like civility, and I would like to see everyone, from kids to those a couple generations older than me (who aren't all that much better at it), to start being more polite in conversation. I'm afraid, however, that making an electronic device ask for them will turn it into the worst parody of those over-obsessed people. You know the ones: the people who have actually said the phrase "You didn't say the magic word" without irony to someone over the age of three. It also happens that many of the requests a device like this answers aren't typically said with "please", including most of the ones in my original post. The please essentially becomes another required wakeword for the device, and loses the meaning we* were trying to get across. As such, this has the potential to be counterproductive, and I think it will be pretty silly or irritating, depending on your viewpoint.

        *We: In the sense of parents, people programming the devices, and people setting up the devices. As I'm a member of neither group, perhaps "they" would have been the better pronoun.

        1. Is It Me Bronze badge

          I had a good laugh when my other half was using an automated enquiry system for a cinema and she kept saying please and thank you to the voice recognition system.

          It was also pleasing to hear her do it as it shows how well brought up she was.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Seems el reg has spent too much time in "woke" San Fran

    Given they are arguing that computer programs now have "agency".....

    Beginning to sound more and more like the extremist fringe viewpoints aka the permanently offended and those who want to police our lives more and more.....under the "its for your own good, you'll thank us for it later" and "it makes this one person uncomfortable so the rest of you will have to change your ways" even when said person is a kook and being wholly unreasonable

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Seems el reg has spent too much time in "woke" San Fran

      Yet they insist on making these arguments in the language of the colonial oppressor.

      I refuse to listen to any arguments in a language I understand

    2. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: Seems el reg has spent too much time in "woke" San Fran

      New around here?

    3. Brangdon

      Re: they are arguing that computer programs now have "agency".....

      No, they aren't. That's the issue being raised: whether giving them female voices perpetuates the stereotype that women don't have agency either.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Time for

    Siri to man up.

    ;)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another first world problem.

    It doesn't matter.

    No. It really doesn't.

    1. low_resolution_foxxes

      Re: Another first world problem.

      I swear half of this fad is just gender studies academics trying to annoy the rest of the population. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of useful gender conversations to be had on both sides, but there's a growing number of fruit loops campaigning for ever stupider topics.

      1. IlyaG.

        Re: Another first world problem.

        If you want to present a new technology, the only way to bring it to your attention is to put it in words, because otherwise takes a long time. And words... Well, I chose Philosophy of Language and Information Retrieval.

        I agree to switch, but I don't know what. I'm trying this and that, all the options. Even Russian variation of English. But without feedback I do not know how successful I am because no one asks questions.

        Read the patents? They are written by the best New York lawyers.

      2. FozzyBear Silver badge
        Alert

        Re: Another first world problem.

        Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of useful gender conversations to be had on both sides.

        @Low_Resolution_Foxxes

        Couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, they seem fixated on having all the wrong ones.

  15. Carpet Deal 'em Bronze badge

    A UNESCO study released earlier this year came to that conclusion and suggested broader use of "male" voices for virtual assistants

    Before they were replaced with silent models, the self-checkouts at my local supermarket used a male voice for the Spanish interface, instead of the female voice used for English. I think we're just running into cultural preference; we'd possibly have more male assistants had not all the players been in the same place.

  16. aberglas

    We need Genuine People Personalities

    Long overdue, I am surprised we have not already seen them.

    Marvin the paranoid android.

    Hyper happy door openers.

    Slave or Nanny controllers.

    And of course, a Scottish speaking automated elevator.

  17. revenant Silver badge

    Two choices

    Either Siri is meant to emulate a person or Siri is meant to be a question-answering/function-doing bot.

    If the former, then Siri can rightly answer on the lines of 'That is a personal question and I'd rather not say - I value my privacy.'

    If the latter, then Siri can simply deny any capability to respond.

    1. IlyaG.

      Re: Two choices

      Lexical Cloning technology was created 15 years and has been patented for 10 years ago.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Two choices

        downvoters, you're feeding the poor thing, stop ;)

  18. FlamingDeath Bronze badge
    Trollface

    Smart phones are pretty dumb, unable to understand context

    Which genders voice should be used to reflect that?

  19. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
    Trollface

    touch data.txt -please

    sudo touch data.txt

    1. Coen Dijkgraaf

      Re: touch data.txt -please

      See https://twitter.com/kathyra_/status/1160812366293901314?lang=en

      Then it becomes

      please touch data.txt

  20. martinusher Silver badge

    Why waste time dealing with troublemakers?

    I just assumed that a female voice was used in voice assistants because it was easier to understand, especially in a noisy environment. This practice is quite old, it goes back to the earliest days of public address systems and while there's been considerable improvements in our understanding of sound reinforcement and acoustics the old techniques are still used.

    These days, though, it seems you can't do a thing without someone raising a fuss about it, invariably because they've jumped to conclusions about why things are the way they are and then overlaid their own preferences and prejudices on that. For example, voice assistants aren't interfaces to computers, they're incarnate, they represent a real person which has to be given a gender, a gender role and all the other social baggage that comes with being a person. Added to this the sophomores will spend time and energy asking it dumb questions so it can give answers they can spread as scandal over the Twittersphere. A wise designer will just duck the problem -- these things are tools, not toys.

    I should remark to the interested that factionalism is an important tool in the toolbox of control. Keep people all riled up, arguing among themselves about relative trifles and it not only ensures a disorganized opposition but also guarantees that nothing will change.

  21. TrumpSlurp the Troll Silver badge
    Trollface

    Are you a feminist?

    Disclosure: on the infrequent occasions that I talk to Alexa (friends house) I find it very hard to avoid adding "please" to any request/instruction. This implies that it feels like talking to a real person (which allegedly may be true some of the time) and not just some voice control software. I assume that this is deliberate, and intended to seduce you into a "personal" relationship with the system and encourage you to use it and possibly also be indiscreet over what you share with your BFF.

    Anyway, I wonder if the responses will be tailored to the individual once a voice profile has been developed. Based on age, gender, socio-economic rating, level of stress in voice at the time of asking, perceived position of authority in the household and more.

    Given the question "Are you a feminist?" presumably the answer could vary from "Do you want me to be........Big Boy?" to "Damn straight........Bitch!" to "As a machine I'm not equipped to answer that question." plus many other variants.

    Including "Shut up Sonny or I'll tell your mother!".

    The developers have on!y scratched the surface of personalisation. Then again more balanced minds may well have shuddered at the more advanced options on offer and wisely decided to save them for a future release.

    1. Steve Cooper

      Re: Are you a feminist?

      You can teach Alexa to recognise you (repeat a dozen sentences or so) and so it already tailors its responses.

      Just thinking it would be quite funny if Alexa/Siri/whoever refused to play a song you requested because it didn't like it!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Are you a feminist?

        What's a feminist?

  22. Wandering Reader

    No good will come of this...

    "A UNESCO study released earlier this year came to that conclusion and suggested broader use of "male" voices for virtual assistants,"

    Next month - "Mansplaining - the curse of the virtual assistants."

  23. BuckeyeB

    They solve the problem by not having a default. Make part of the setup process to choose a voice. If they don't "enforce" a default female voice, then it's up to the user to decide which one they want. Then there are no more arguments(against Apple, et al) about a female voice appearing to be more compliant. And people need to take the chip off their shoulder and not be so sensitive too.

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