Why is it Alexa, not Alex? A century of hard-coded sexism in tech, experts say

Ideas53:59Computer Harem: A History of Female Hosts

If you are one of the millions of people who use digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana, you may have noticed that they are almost always named after women.

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According to many experts, that is not a danger. These digital assistants are designed to be attention-grabbing, sometimes submissive, and sometimes even sexy.

Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, Senior Researcher in Macau “. The United Nations University Institute told CBC Radio Ideas.

Today, you can choose a male or female voice for most digital assistants. In February, Apple unveiled a new gender neutral option called Quinn.

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But in most of their markets, female voices like attention. In particular, Microsoft’s Cortana is named after an interesting AI character in the video game Halo.

Cortana, an artificial intelligence, appeared in Halo 4 for the Microsoft Xbox 360 video game console. Microsoft has named its digital plugin after Cortana. (343 Industries / Microsoft)

“This real-world device is modeled after a robot that invents women with many curves, tight clothes and in Hello 4 Jennifer Jill Fellows, a philosophy professor at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC, said.

But this trend has not emerged immediately in the last decade or so. They were also developed over the centuries of computer vision as women noted – and often women as assistants.

Pickering Harem

The term “computer” has been in use since at least the 1600s. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 English Dictionary defines this term as accountant or accountant.

In the late 19th century, women whose husbands were killed in the American Civil War were looking for work to support themselves and their families. Most of those jobs are in office work, including typing, accounting and computers.

According to David Grier, a technology consultant in Washington, DC, scientists at universities have begun hiring women as computers to process flood data from new telescopes.

At Harvard Observatory, the initiative was led by astronomer and physicist Edward Pickering. In addition to his tenure at Harvard, he hired dozens of women to help his team work.

Edward Pickering and the computer team he hired were seen in a 1913 photo in front of Harvard College. These women are collectively known as Pickering’s Harem. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astronomical Physics)

This job is often low paid, with little opportunity for growth or respect.

“Pickering boasts [that] “He paid them as little as he could escape,” Grier said.

They eventually became collectively known as Pickering Harem due to the popularity of Arabian Nights in England at the time, an association that Pickering seemed to have inspired.

Fellows explains, “This is an age of Orientalism, an exotic oriental fantasy in which powerful men have sexual partners.”

“A little for the university professor and his assistant.”

Talk like a woman

While men like Pickering have repeatedly helped computers as jobs for women, similar to secretaries or assistants, others are thinking of ways to make mechanical computers more attractive to the masses.

Andrea Guzman is an associate professor at the University of Northern Illinois, who studies human-machine relations. (Andrea Guzman)

In the 1950s, which involved trying to alleviate fears that automation was threatening to make jobs – from industry to office work – obsolete.

“[It raised] The question is, what will happen to the workers? Andrea Guzman, an associate professor at the University of Northern Illinois who studies human-machine relations, said.

According to Fellows, that concern appeared in pop culture and movies such as Desk Set, a 1957 romantic comedy sponsored by IBM.

In the film, Audrey Hepburn and her office staff are introduced to a modern computer called the EMERAC (Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator), or simply Miss EMMY.

After initial fears that it would make other women’s jobs obsolete, EMMY eventually became a member Reliable in the team.

“IBM’s goal is clear: to address the concern that computers will take everyone’s work by presenting a happy workplace and a computer that does not threaten women,” Fellows said.

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The quest for natural language continued outside the cinema with Eliza, a text-based chat program created by programmer Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. It is designed to mimic psychotherapists by inviting people to share their personal problems and respond to needs.

Many early users described creating a personal attachment close to Eliza based on their conversations with it. . According to Weizenbaum, his personal secretary had asked him to leave the room so she and Eliza could have a private conversation.

‘Submissive and helpful female assistant’

When creating the current digital assistant, Eliza was a key reference point. In fact, when Siri was first released in 2011, if you asked it to tell a story about “her”, it would tell a story about her friend Eliza.

With a few more practical examples, designers are always looking at contemporary science fiction for inspiration.

“If we think about it, we do not really interact with artificial intelligence or anything that seems to be artificial intelligence until we start to see these smart assistants come along,” Guzman said.

Watch: Star Trek’s computer voice receives “cute” personality update:

One of the most recognizable reference points is the computer in Star JourneyCommonly mentioned by Majel Barrett.

Of course, not all fictional computers are known for their friendly female voices. Take the HAL 9000 as an opponent 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s not uncommon if you ask Siri in early 2011 if it knows HAL, it will reply “I do not want to talk about HAL”.

The sexyness of the actress continues to arrive Stepford wife From 1975; Rachael Copy from Blade Runner Who works as a secretary; And EDI, the ship’s computer from the Mass Effect game, which was eventually downloaded into a curved chrome.

“Siri’s first sex as a woman in 2011 turned out to be amazing. She’s not going to take your job,” Fellows said. “She’s not going to hurt you. Like Eliza and like Star Trek, she’s a submissive and helpful female assistant.”

Jennifer Jill Fellows is a philosophy professor at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC and co-producer of the documentary Ideas A Harem of Computers. (Jennifer Jill Fellows)

‘I would be fair if I could’

That sexual trend entered Siri at least when it was introduced. A UNESCO report in 2019 noted that if you ask Siri “Siri, are you a slut?” It will reply: “I will blush if I can.”

The report called Siri’s response “sexually explicit” and could contribute to a culture of rape by normalizing women’s sexual harassment.

Since the report, Apple has changed the way Siri answers that question. It will simply say, “I will not respond to that.”

These kinds of changes seem insignificant for some people who just want a friendly voice to tell them about the weather without turning on the TV or radio.

But for the Fournier-Tombs, it is important that the so-called instruments of the future do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

“If we as a society are trying to evolve and try to have new standards for gender, we can not do it. [if] “The other tools we are using are just promoting these models.”

“They influence our culture and make us degenerate that way.”

Eleonore Fournier-Tombs is a senior researcher at the United Nations University in Macau. (Eleonore Fournier-Tomb)


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