Blog: Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Q?
I absolutely love my Alexa. I have her in every room and she has become a seamless part of our lives. She plays music, pauses and even replays my favorite song when I ask her to. She knows who won the Oscar last year for best actor as well as the distance to the moon and back. She is smart, she is funny and I am looking forward to her addressing each of us by name soon.
To some, digital assistants represent an invasion of privacy. That is true, no doubt. She is listening, even when you think she is not and she can even be creepy sometimes with her own version of the evil laugh. But she can also be so human that sometimes it is difficult to remember that she is only an artificial intelligence-powered robot.
I am not alone in my love for my digital assistant. It is predicted that digital assistants household penetration will reach close to 50% by 2022, in the US alone. Currently, 1 in every 4 households already owns a digital assistant. What’s driving the high adoption rate? A couple of things: For one, it helps that the last two annual black Friday sales have aggressively pushed digital assistants by sell ing them at 50% off their ticketed price. I believe this will be further pushed by Amazon Prime Day — Amazon’s big annual sale day that usually takes place in June. Amazon has historically used it as a day to push its digital products and this year will be no different as it continues on its agenda of making Alexa the Number 1 Digital assistant, globally. Alexa has already captured 70% of the voice market share in the US, doing everything from playing songs to listing recipes to ordering from Amazon.
The other reason for digital assistants’ quick adoption is ‘convenience’. I, for example, did it for the convenience of seamlessly playing music in every room. More than 55% of digital assistant device owners like the convenience of using their Echos and Google homes to control their television and other services. Lights and other powered devices are not too far behind, I am sure (Alexa, turn the lights off!). This trend has had a spillover effect on other industries too. My cable company, for example, recently upgraded our cable box to one that could be controlled with a voice-activated remote. All I need to do is ask and it will do my command.
Many consumers are now getting more than one smart device, with 16% of U.S. broadband households already owning two or more smart devices. For example, 38% of consumers who own a smart speaker with a voice assistant also have a smart thermostat, such as Google’s Nest. In fact, the smart thermostat is the best selling product in the smart home category. With people buying bigger homes that have multiple temperature control zones, it makes sense to buy smart thermostats that use AI to efficiently monitor the house’s energy usage.
In Amazon and Google’s quest to make their digital assistants more human, it is easy to forget that one is speaking to a robot. I, for one, love Alexa’s voice. It soothes, has a calming pace and is very even keel. I also like the fact that it is ‘female’. However, we have gotten used to hearing a default female voice as a digital assistant (remember secretaries?) whether it is the trailblazer Siri or the voice of Google Maps, Google Home or Alexa. But think about it: A woman doing whatever you ask her to do? Even though it may not have been the intent of the makers, it does reek of a stereotype bias. Of course, people will argue that it is possible to change the voice settings and make our digital assistant sound ‘male’. But what about those who identify themselves as gender neutral? Reminds me of my first visit to the NY and San Francisco Google offices. It was my 1st time coming across bathrooms that were open to all: male, female and gender neutral.
A group of people in Copenhagen raised the important question: why does voice have to be female or male? Why can’t there be a third option: gender neutral? Thanks to the work of technology leaders, linguists, sound engineers and AI scientists in Copenhagen, we now have Q, the world’s first gender-neutral digital assistant. Q is more than a trend. Q is a serious discussion about gender neutrality, ethics and the questioning of stereotypes. As digital assistants make their way into organizations, it is an opportunity for businesses to challenge stereotypes. Research shows that people might prefer a female-sounding voice when it comes to assisted services (ever wondered why there are so many women in departmental stores?) or prefer a male voice when it needs to come from a voice of authority. This only reinforces gender stereotypes. Barking orders at a digital device that responds in a woman’s voice can reinforce sexist stereotypes, according to academics and creatives who launched the first gender-neutral artificial intelligence voice. Q is the answer. Launched at the South by Southwest (SXSW) creative festival in Texas, Q is neither male nor female.
This may seem trivial but it is an important step towards an ethics conscious, inclusive-AI world: with robots and digital assistants becoming an integral part of driverless cars, laptops, smartphones and IOT smart devices, digital assistants and other kinds of ‘consumer robots are on track to reach $13.2 billion in sales by 2022. AI will continue to play a bigger role in our culture, our everyday lives and the global economy. It is, therefore, important, for us to understand our inherent biases that may come into play while designing them. We are, after all, human and it is our implicit biases that get translated while designing these futuristic technologies. Consider, for example, the sheer number of digital assistants that are given female names, voices, and, in many cases, bodies. Siri, Cortana, Sophia and Alexa are a few such examples but seem to be an existing trend.
I believe that Q is only the beginning. As our digital and non-worlds continue to blend, we will need to be conscious of designing for an inclusive world. This is extremely important from both, a business perspective as well as a consumer perspective. The discussion has only just begun. From our end, we need to continue asking, “why not”.
Q is the First Genderless Voice, created to end gender bias in AI assistants.www.genderlessvoice.com
Join me every week, as we navigate these ever-changing waters to make sense of this ‘always-on’, ‘always-connected’ consumer and the technologies that define their everyday. I will be bringing you insights from some of the sharpest global minds in the industry as well as in academia. And do join the conversation.
Until next week
A seasoned Advertising and Digital expert, Anika has worked across countries and continents and spoken at companies such as Google and universities such as New York University. She is currently Professor of Business at NYU’s Stern School of Business, teaching Digital, Social and Mobile Marketing. Follow Anika on twitter @anikadas or on Medium.
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