Siri and Alexa, the AI voice assistants on iOS and Amazon devices, might be sexist, at least that’s according to a speech expert. As the Daily Mail reports, Delip Rao, the CEO and co-founder of R7 Speech Sciences, a company that uses AI to understand the human voice, says that both Alexa and Siri have difficulty understanding women because their voices tend to be “breathy” when compared to the male voice. According to Rao, the voice assistant technology is developed using male voice examples, which is why they struggle to pick up commands given by women.
“In Speech, we measure the mean fundamental frequency (correlates with our perception of ‘pitch’). This is also called mean F0,” he wrote on his website. “You could write a simple, rule-based, gender classifier if you had the mean F0 from audio (can be extracted from audio). From many sources, including, we know the mean F0 for men is around 120Hz and much higher for women (~200Hz).”
Rao isn’t the only person who has made this claim. In an interview with the Register, Rachael Tatman, a data scientist and Ph.D. linguistics graduate from the University of Washington, agrees with Rao, but she adds that the AI voice assistants’ trouble with female voices doesn’t just stem from a lack of female voice examples during their development.
She explains that human voices are turned in to MFCCs or Mel-frequency cepstral coefficients so that they can be interpreted by speech recognition technology. Tatman contends that MFCCs aren’t inherently worse at processing female speech to men’s. However, female voices have a “slightly less robust acoustic signal.” She adds that women’s voices are also more easily obscured by background noise, making it more difficult for speech recognition gadgets to pick them up.
“That will affect whatever you use for your acoustic modelling, which is what MFCCs are used for,” she says.
These claims that Alexa and Siri might be sexist comes after Amazon updated Alexa to make it unresponsive when users address it with misogynist words like “slut.” Now, when anyone addresses Alexa with that type of language, it goes into disengagement mode and refuses to answer the question, the Daily Wire reported back in January. Also, when you ask if Alexa is a feminist, she responds that a feminist is anyone who “believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.”
While this is a positive development, it’s clear that, based on the observations of the speech experts mentioned in this article, the technology could use some more tweaking.