Danish companies Virtue Nordic and Copenhagen Pride have developed a new program that produces a genderless voice.
The technology makes it possible for digital voice assistants such as Alexa and Cortana to sound gender-neutral.
Q is billed as the world’s first genderless voice, developed by advertising firm Virtue Nordic in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride. Both organizations wanted to create gender-neutral voice technology to help promote inclusivity in the workplace.
Julie Carpenter, a researcher at California State Polytechnic University, who served as an adviser to the project Q team, discussed the philosophy behind the program.
“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,” Carpenter said. “Q is a step forward in true innovation because it forces a critical examination of these belief systems.”
The developers started out by recording five distinct voices that do not necessarily fit male or female binaries. They then moved the recordings into a gender-neutral range using voice modulation software.
To test the voice samples, the project Q team conducted a test involving over 4,600 people. Participants were asked to determine whether the voice that they would hear was more male or female.
Based on the answers, the researchers would then tweak the modulation of the voices and tested them again until they were able to create genderless voice.
The team hopes that it could one day build an artificial intelligence (AI) framework for Q so that the genderless voice can be used with digital assistant technologies.
Most voice assistants available, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, are generally presented as female. Despite this, users can choose to have a male voice for Siri and Google Assistant.
Alexa is the exception since Amazon has yet to provide a similar option. While it can speak with a British accent or even in German, Alexa still currently cannot speak in a male voice.
Carpenter noted how some users prefer one-gendered voice over another, depending on what they use a voice assistant for.
Some people prefer a female voice for an AI assistant that is more supportive or meant to help someone, while others prefer a male voice for more authoritative roles.
However, she argued that there is really no reason for a voice to be gendered.
Q makes it possible for users to have more options for their digital assistants, even if it is as simple making their voices genderless. This can be important to those who do not want to conform to certain gender stereotypes.
“I think it’s really important to have representation for trans people when it comes to not only AI, but voices in general,” said Ask Stig Kistvad, a trans man who took part in the project by lending his voice. “It’s a new thing in the last three to five years, that trans people are actually represented in popular culture.”
Kistvad said it is only natural for some technology developers to eventually embrace trans people as well.