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Apple sidesteps bias debate by leaving Siri’s gender up to you

A new version of iOS leaves it up to the user to decide between female and male voices.

Apple sidesteps bias debate by leaving Siri’s gender up to you
[Photo: Omid Armin/Unsplash]
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For a long time, Apple’s Siri voice assistant used a female voice. It was originally the voice of the voice-over artist (and former Roy Orbison backup singer) Susan Bennett. Later, Apple began adding both male and female voice options that the user could select, and in some countries the default was male. But in the U.S., the default has always been female–until now.

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In a new beta version of iOS, Apple leaves it up to users who are setting up Siri to decide what gender and accent they’d like in their assistant, reports TechCrunch‘s Matthew Panzarino. This move could deftly sidestep the debate about the inherent gender bias that the default-female Siri has stirred up in the past. (The UN called the default-female Siri “sexist” in a 2019 report called “I’d blush if I could.”)

Why have Siri and other assistants defaulted to a female voice? Fast Company‘s Katharine Schwab explored the subject in a 2019 article. Among other reasons, AI assistants may have originally used female voices because the available synthesized female voices were of higher sound quality. But that hasn’t been true for years.

Apple has also added a couple of brand new Siri voices in the iOS beta, Panzarino reports. They use samples of real human voice actors, but then smooth the words and inflections using Apple’s Neural Text to Speech engine.

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The new iOS beta is now available to people who have signed up to try out beta versions of the operating system.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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