8:00am

Sat October 22, 2011
Opinion

It's A Girl! The New IPhone Speaks

Why is Siri female?

Siri is the name of a new talking virtual assistant feature on the latest iPhone that can tell you when you have an appointment, where to find a Thai restaurant and what the pollen count will be.

I have friends who have the phone and love to ask Siri, "What's the meaning of life?" She has an answer, which is impressive. Maybe it takes a circuit board to recognize the special quality of life. But frankly, her answer sounds a little robotic.

Siri, which is an acronym for the California company that developed her, speaks in an electronically warm, friendly, female voice. So do most on-board navigations systems, voicemail prompts, directory assistance greetings and Julie, the voice of Amtrak's automated reservation system.

Why are the voices that emanate from our machines so often female?

Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University told CNN.com that humans develop an affinity for female voices that begins when we overhear our mothers speaking while we wait in their wombs.

We hear our birth mothers coo, "I love you," over our heads, so a woman's voice conveys comfort and security. We might hear a man's voice somewhere in the background asking, "Have you seen my shoes? Do we have any of that peanut fudge ripple ice cream left? Hey, where are the spoons?"

Researchers say that while a man's voice can sound "authoritative" — although Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and, for that matter, Nina Totenberg, sound pretty authoritative — a woman's voice may be taken as more congenial and cooperative.

Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, says, "I wouldn't automatically claim any sexism," and suggests that companies are probably only choosing the voices that focus groups and market surveys like most. "It's casting," she says.

Professor Nass at Stanford also points out that male, mechanized voices have played the heavy ever since the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968. HAL speaks soothingly, but locks astronauts out of their spaceship. Professor Nass says, "A lot of tech companies stayed away from the male voice because of HAL."

In other words: typecasting. Because of HAL, a whole generation of male mechanical voices lost out on work.

But I don't want to begin any inclusion campaigns for more male mechanical voices. I prefer to think that the proliferation of female robotic voices reflects some of the progress actual women have won in the struggle for equality. Women have achieved so much in so many ways, you can hear it everywhere.

By the way: You've got mail. I think. Maybe.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host: Why is Siri a female? Siri is the name of a new talking virtual assistant feature on the latest iPhone that can tell you when you have an appointment, where to find a Thai restaurant, and what the pollen count will be. I have friends who have the phone and love to ask Siri, what's the meaning of life?

SIRI: Life, a principle or a force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.

SIMON: Maybe it takes a circuit board to recognize the special quality of life. But frankly, her answer sounds a little robotic. Siri, which is an acronym for the California company that developed her, speaks in an electronically warm, friendly, female voice. So do most on-board navigations systems, voice mail prompts, directory assistance greetings, and Julie, the voice of Amtrak's automated reservation system. Why are the voices that emanate from our machines so often female?

Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University told CNN.com that humans develop an affinity for female voices that begins when we overhear our mothers speaking while we wait in their wombs. We hear our mothers coo I love you just over our heads, so a woman's voice conveys comfort and security. We might hear a man's voice somewhere in the background asking, have you seen my shoes? Do we have any of that peanut fudge ripple ice cream left? Hey, where are the spoons?

Researchers say that while a man's voice can sound authoritative - although Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton, and, for that matter, Nina Totenberg, sound plenty authoritative - a woman's voice may be taken as more congenial and cooperative. Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, says, I wouldn't automatically claim any sexism, and suggests that companies are probably only choosing the voice that focus groups and market surveys like most. It's casting, she says. Professor Nass at Stanford also points out that male mechanized voices have played the heavy ever since the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," which came out in 1968. HAL speaks soothingly, but locks astronauts out of their spaceship. Professor Nass says, a lot of tech companies stayed away from the male voice because of HAL. In other words: typecasting. Because of HAL, a whole generation of male mechanical voices lost out on work.

But I don't want to begin any inclusion campaign for more male mechanical voices. I prefer to think that the proliferation of female robotic voices reflects some of the progress actual women have won in the struggle for equality. Women have achieved so much in so many ways you can hear it everywhere. By the way: you've got mail. I think. Maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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