'Genderless' voice tech aims to tackle sex bias in AI


Vice Media’s creative agency Virtue has created a “genderless” voice tech platform as a remedy against harmful gender stereotyping in artificial intelligence.

Q, which is being launched at the SXSW tech festival in Austin, Texas, today, aims to tackle gender bias and make the use of AI more inclusive.

Virtue accuses tech companies of gendering their voice tech products to fit scenarios in which they believe consumers will feel most comfortable adopting and using it. The agency said a male voice is used in more authoritative roles, such as banking and insurance apps, and a female voice in more service-oriented roles, such as Alexa or Siri. 

The next step will be to build an AI framework with the voice that can be used in voice-assisted products, such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, as well as voices used at train stations, video games and movie theatres.

Virtue partnered Anna Jørgensen, a linguist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, to define the parameters for a gender-neutral voice.

To start, five voices were recorded that do not fit within male or female binaries. Using specific voice modulation software, the voices were moved into the gender-neutral range that was defined through Jørgensen’s research.

The modulated voices were then tested on a Europe-wide survey with more than 4,600 people, asking participants to rate the voice on a scale of one (male) to five (female). Finally, the voice was modulated and tested again until the voice was perceived as gender neutral.

Q is being launched in partnership with Copenhagen Pride and Equal AI, an initiative focused on correcting and preventing gender bias in AI.

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The creative team from Virtue Nordics, Ryan Sherman and Emil Asmussen, said: “Technology should be rooted in new cultural truths, rather than antiquated ones … Q represents not the voice of one but the voice of many, who are fighting for a future inclusive of everyone.”

Virtue is led by Rob Newlan, the ex-Facebook Creative Shop director, who was appointed chief executive for EMEA in June 2017 and oversees its 18 offices across Europe. The agency has worked with brands including Unilever, Nike, Google, Chanel and Timberland.



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