VICE Media creates genderless AI voice assistant to tackle bias and stereotype

VIRTUE, the creative agency by VICE Media, has developed the world’s first genderless voice named ‘Q’. With the launch of Q, VIRTUE aims to be at the forefront of the digitisation of the voice for roll-out across voice assisted products.

According to a statement to the press by VICE, technology companies are said to conclude users’ preferences of a female voice in certain scenarios, and male voices in others because they believe it will make people more comfortable adopting and using it. The male voice is used in more authoritative roles, such as banking and insurance apps, and the female voice in more service oriented roles, such as Alexa or Siri.

"This gender bias infiltrates the platforms that are becoming more pervasive in everyday lives, reinforcing outdated stereotypes and regressing the world’s progression on the perception of gender," it said. As such, the Nordics team of VIRTUE teamed up with Copenhagen Pride to put an end to this with the launch of Q, which is an example of inclusion and diverse representation in technology.

Ryan Sherman and Emil Asmussen from VIRTUE Nordics, the creative team behind Q said, “Technology should be rooted in new cultural truths, rather than antiquated ones. As the agency born from VICE, we have a responsibility to ensure diverse representation in the mediums shaping culture today."

"Using data and insights from our global VICE network, we identified a unique opportunity to progress a medium of technology becoming more pervasive in our everyday lives. Q represents not the voice of one, but the voice of many who are fighting for a future inclusive of everyone," the duo said.

VIRTUE teamed up with Anna Jørgensen, Linguist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, to define the parameters for a gender neutral voice through her academic research and consultation. 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 the research. The modulated voices were tested on a Europe-wide survey with over 4600 people, asking participants to rate the voice on a scale of 1 (male) to 5 (female). Finally the voice was modulated and tested again until the voice was perceived as gender neutral.

Julie Carpenter, human and robot interaction researcher, who’s been involved as expert to consult VIRTUE Nordics in the process of creating Q, said Q adds to a global discussion about who is designing gendered technology, why those choices are made, and how people feed into expectations about things like trustworthiness, intelligence, and reliability of a technology based on cultural biases rooted in their belief system about groups of people. "Q is a step forward in true innovation because it forces a critical examination of these belief systems," Carpenter added.

Thomas Rasmussen, head of communication, Copenhagen Pride: "Copenhagen Pride works to challenge the gender binary and combat strong, harmful and often very limiting gender stereotypes that fail to recognize non-binary gender identities. With Q - a neutral voice with no preassigned gender - we aim to get the attention of leading technological companies that work with AI to ensure they are aware that a gender binary normativity excludes many people and to inspire them by showing how easy it would actually be to recognize that more than two genders exist when developing artificial intelligence devices. This is about giving people choices and options. It is about freedom and inclusion."

Now that Q’s genderless voice has been developed, the next step is to build the AI framework within its voice. From there, VIRTUE’s ambition is to see Q implemented not only in voice-assisted products, but also as a voice for metro stations, games, theaters, and beyond.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)