Humans are a needy bunch. We require love, trust, time, patience, attention, guidance and support. In childhood, this typically comes from our parents. In adulthood, when the doting routines of our parents slip away, we look for these qualities in other places.
And we find them in our pockets, our loudspeakers and our cars. They're the robot voices that guide us through our days and nights — and more often than not, they're replacing Mom, not Dad.
So why, exactly, are all these automated voices women, not men?
"You seem like a person, but you're just a voice in a computer," Theodore tells Samantha, his digital assistant. In the beginning of Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her, Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is perplexed by his new robot friend. By the end of the film, he has fallen in love with her.
Her is a tale for the 21st-century romantic: Boy meets artificial intelligence-powered girl, they fall in love, girl leaves to explore the possibilities of her existence. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, lives inside Theodore's new operating system and is never seen. She floats around Theodore's existence as he grapples with his affection for not flesh and blood but circuits and silicon.
Though Samantha lacks corporeality, she's attractive to a lonely man like Theodore. Intelligent, creative and empathetic, she reaches parts of him that others, including his soon-to-be ex-wife, cannot. She has no needs of her own and demands nothing of him, unlike a real partner. She is femininity distilled and idolized: obedient, serene and gentle.
She's also anchored in real-life tools.
She is femininity distilled and idolized: obedient, serene and gentle.
Her performed exceptionally well in critical circles, and many praised Johansson's voice acting. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers raved that her "vocal tour de force is award-worthy." To viewers, it was unnervingly familiar: Samantha's closeness to today's digital robot voices was uncanny.
In fact, she isn't so far removed from digital assistants like Siri, Cortana and the women who usher us along in our commutes every day. Femaleness has long played an important role in the development of artificial intelligence and the digital devices that power our lives.
A brief history of female robot voices: In 1878, Emma Nutt became the first female phone operator in the world. Companies used to rely on boys for the task, but they were "rude and abusive to each other as well as to the customers," and women replaced them, according to a PBS documentary on the history of the telephone. Women were respectful and polite, making them ideal go-betweens.
Later, during World War II, women became known for their presence in the cockpit as well as in the factory. "Bitching Betty" provided warnings to fighter pilots as they dodged and dove. "They used female voices because they were different, and the men were more likely to pay attention to them, particularly in combat situations," Judy Edworthy, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Plymouth, told the New York Times in 2010.
Today, automated female voices are everywhere. Karen Jacobsen — "Australian Karen" to hoards of GPS users — has her own website and Wikipedia page. Carolyn Hopkins informs frazzled New York City commuters when their train will arrive and tells air travelers to watch their bags. Susan Bennett, arguably the most well-known voice of Apple's virtual assistant Siri, helped millions of iPhone users find the closest deli. (She was replaced in iOS 7.) Jen Taylor's Cortana does the same for Windows devices.
"I suspect they lean toward the female voice for anything associated with a phone because phone operators were always female," Bennett told Mic in a phone call. "I think we sort of have a mindset toward that. I also think that the female voice tends to be softer, a little bit more pleasant to listen to as far as getting information in a nicer way." (For curious readers, Bennett's regular speaking voice is much different from Siri's. Once she dropped it down an octave, however, it was like having a real-life conversation with everyone's favorite iPhone assistant.)
What's the deal? Automated voice systems and robot voices themselves may be made up of hardware and electricity, but they were designed and produced by human beings — people with cultural and societal biases, preconceptions and impulses.
Psychologically, people tend to respond warmly to female voices. A 2014 study in the journal Developmental Psychobiology reported that while fetuses showed responses to both parents' voices, "newborns showed a preference for their mother's but not their father's voice." In one 2010 study, researchers found that men reported they preferred female voices, although they showed no implicit bias toward them. Women, meanwhile, implicitly preferred female voices, even more than their explicitly stated preferences.
"It's much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes."
"It's much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes," Clifford Nass, a a professor of communication at Stanford who specialized in human-robot interaction, told CNN in 2011. "It's a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices."
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and an expert on gendered communication, told Mic female voices may invoke memories of our mothers.
"You expect your mother to wait on you and do everything for you. Your father: You better tiptoe around him, he might be busy, he might not do it right, you shouldn't bother him," she said. "In a way, I see it as related to the secretary phenomenon."
This secretary phenomenon is reflected in female robot voices. The voices mentioned above play very specific roles: helpful and competent assistants, like a chirpy secretary employed by a futuristic Don Draper.
"There's kind of a history of feeling women are there to serve you," Tannen said. "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," she said, explaining the mindset.
But when it comes to other contexts, like the voices of authoritative information tellers and guides, male speakers are often used. "It's the same thing in advertising too," Bennett, the original voice of Siri, told Mic. "The guys that make the big bucks ... the big huge voices, those are the voices of authority."
Female robot voices are helpful and competent assistants, like a chirpy secretary a futuristic Don Draper might employ.
Movie trailers, for example, tend to be narrated by men. "Even if it's a romantic comedy or non-action movie, [film studios] still want that certain power and drama that men's voices tend to convey on a grander scale," Jeff Danis, a voice-over agent, told the New York Times.
In one memorable anecdote, BMW found itself in a pickle after its 5 Series cars went on the market in the 1990s. The car's GPS system came pre-installed with a female voice, but after fielding phone calls from male German drivers who wouldn't listen to instructions from a woman, BMW recalled the system.
Samantha, Siri and others like them are, as Maggie Lange at New York magazine put it, "fulfilling needs ... a digital version of film's oft-reviled manic pixies: mechanical, programmed dream girls."
Tannen said robot voices need to come across as a person who's likable, otherwise people won't trust them. This is often a requirement of women, unlike men, hence why so many digital assistants are female.
"In assistance roles, you want the person to be accommodating, approachable, which if you put it in the voice of a woman is a positive thing," she said. "But if you put that in the voice of a man, they may have a negative impression of that man."
But companies who devise robot voice systems have a responsibility to ensure their products don't fall victim to gender stereotypes. While Bennett, for instance, isn't entirely optimistic about this prospect — "I think in general, most companies don't even begin to think about the moral aspects," she said — it is possible: Some transportation announcements are voiced by men, and there's now a male option for Siri with accent options other than American.
Nuance, the company behind Siri's communication techniques, trumpets that "technology should work in service of people and adapt to the way people communicate instead of forcing people to adapt to the machines."
But working in service of people — people with deeply ingrained cultural biases — carries its own set of peculiar dangers and pitfalls. Perhaps they should heed the conclusion of Her — one in which the female assistant designed to bend to our every whim decides she wants something for herself instead.