The whole point of having a digital assistant is to have it do stuff for you. You’re supposed to boss it around.
But it still sounds like a bit of a reprimand whenever I hear someone talking to an Amazon Echo. The monolithic voice-activated digital assistant will, when instructed, play music for you, read headlines, add items to your Amazon shopping cart, and complete any number of other tasks. And to activate the Echo, you first have to say: “Alexa.” As in, “Alexa, play rock music.” (Or, more pointedly, “Alexa, stop.”)
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The command for Microsoft’s Cortana—“Hey Cortana”—is similar, though maybe a smidge gentler. Apple’s Siri can be activated with a “hey,” or with the push of a button. Not to get overly anthropomorphic here—Amazon’s the one who refers to Echo as part of the family, after all—but if we’re going to live in a world in which we’re ordering our machines around so casually, why do so many of them have to have women’s names?
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 CNNin 2011. (Nass died in 2013.) “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”