People supporting LGBTQ and non-binary
Jun 15, 2021
7 MIN READ

Are Non-Binary Voice Assistants on the Horizon?

For the month of Pride, we wanted to discuss how non-binary voices can be used in voice assistants to reduce gender stereotypes and create a more inclusive community. We recognize that representation and inclusion are important considerations for brands that support people of all gender and sexual identities, and we wanted to extend the conversation to include the entities that represent those brands—their voice assistants. 

For voice assistants, gender identities are represented through the voice persona and the sound of the voice, which are often found to promote negative gender stereotypes of women. In fact, 92.4% of the U.S. market share for smartphone assistants have traditionally female-sounding voices, according to Business Insider.

In an age where gender fluidity and non-binary identities are raising public awareness and creating new ways of talking about and to people, voice assistants continue to be assigned voices that associate them with traditional gender identities. Even though most voice assistants respond with statements such as, “I’m not a woman, I’m an AI,” when asked to identify themselves, users still recognize them as having female or male-sounding voices.

Non-binary voice assistants present a solution to the challenge of furthering gender biases and reinforcing gender stereotypes through interactions with voice assistants. A study published on Science Direct discusses how female stereotypes include nurturing and submission and stereotypes associated with men are dominance, autonomy, and achievement. While voice assistants are technically an “it”, not a he, she, or they, humans tend to use anthropomorphism—linking personality traits to non-human entities—especially with voice assistants where 41% of users consider them a friend or companion, according to Google

While the wider conversation in the voice assistant space has centered on the prevalence of female-sounding voices and how it perpetuates gender stereotypes, non-binary voice assistants bring forth the question of whether gender needs to be assigned at all. Now more than ever, brands have a social responsibility to be at the forefront of change and positive action. When creating a voice assistant, the process isn’t just limited to how to make the fastest, most accurate voice AI possible, but also how to create one that promotes equality and equity. Possible solutions brands can consider when aiming to be more inclusive include using a wider range of genders and even non-binary voice AI. 

The future of non-binary voice AI

According to a study by The Fawcett Society, 51% of people who experienced gender stereotypes as a child said it affected their careers and 44% said it harmed their personal relationships. According to eMarketer, 2.2 million kids—those ages 11 and younger—used a smart speaker at least once a month in 2020. While the negative consequences of gender stereotypes affect people regardless of age, brands should be especially aware of their young users and the impact their voice assistants may have on the sensibilities of the next generation. 

51% of people who experienced gender stereotypes as a child said it affected their careers and 44% said it harmed their personal relationships.

The Fawcett Society

To counter gender stereotypes, brands may want to consider an inclusive, non-binary voice assistant. Switching from binary (female or male) to non-binary voices has the potential to lessen the impact of gender associations and negatively charged behavior toward a voice assistant based on their perceived gender. Instead, non-binary voices can help challenge gender norms and the perception of the appropriate roles of people based on their birth gender.

The first genderless voice assistant, Q, was developed in 2019 by Copenhagen Pride, Virtue, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive, and Thirty Sounds Good. The creators of Q wanted to contribute to a global conversation about gender, technology, and ethics and be inclusive of people who identify in all different ways. Q states, “I am created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender but rather how we define ourselves.” 

“I am created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender but rather how we define ourselves.” 

Q, the first genderless voice assistant

Q paved the way for others to take up the gender-fluid mantel and was soon followed by the non-binary voice assistant Sam, created by an Edinburgh-based text-to-speech company and Accenture Labs. They released Sam to the Open Source community with the goal that voice assistants can more accurately represent the diversity of the global population. The trend of genderless voice assistants may have only started in recent years, but it is growing and gaining popularity as an alternative to reinforcing gender stereotypes. 

The making of a non-binary voice assistant

The creation of a non-binary voice assistant may seem daunting at first but it is actually similar to creating any other voice AI with only a few additional steps. Just like with any other voice assistant, brands will begin with recording a voice professional, but for a non-binary voice, they will want to hire someone who neither identifies as male nor female. 

The next step is where the design and development of voice AI veer away from traditional voice assistant creation—adjusting the pitch. Male voices are at a lower pitch between 85 to 180 hertz, and female voices have a higher pitch between 140 to 255 hertz. The voice then needs to be altered to be between the two pitches at 145-175 hertz for a more neutral tone.

The recorded voice then needs to be altered to be between the two pitches at 145-175 hertz for a more neutral tone.

Once the non-binary voice has been created, it needs to be tested by diverse groups of people to see which gender or non-binary status they prescribe to it, with more iterations as necessary. The first genderless voice assistant Q was tested on 4,000 non-binary individuals. Half of them couldn’t tell the gender, and the other half was equally split between male and female. While this is great progress toward gender-neutral voices, brands need to consider more than just the sound of the voice when vying for non-binary voice assistants.

The personality assigned to the voice assistant also needs to match the gender fluidity, further challenging gender roles and how gender is perceived. A voice persona is a great way to introduce sonic branding and convey the brand’s messaging and values through the voice assistant. Brands can go even further with their voice persona by creating a personality that is gender-neutral and avoids common gender stereotypes such as nurturing and submission for female voices and dominance, autonomy, and achievement for male voices. 

By creating a voice persona that is free of gender stereotypes, the brand is further stating its commitment to inclusivity values. For brands wanting to defy gender roles, non-binary voice assistants are a possible solution that will communicate their brand values of inclusivity even more. 

Advocate for inclusivity standards

Brands can take their inclusivity goals a step further by incorporating diversity into the creation of voice assistants. Brands may want to consider hiring developer teams composed of diverse gender identities, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds to reduce the likelihood of implicit bias and increase the input from all types of groups. 

Testing should be conducted on a wide variety of individuals and iterations made based on feedback from people of all different identities—especially important when creating non-binary and inclusive voice assistants. The greater variety of voices that contribute to the creation of the voice assistant, the more likely it will speak to users of all different backgrounds.

The greater variety of voices that contribute to the creation of the voice assistant, the more likely it will speak to users of all different backgrounds.

Even though female-sounding voice assistants currently overwhelm the market, a future solution to combat gender stereotypes is having a non-binary voice AI. Brands wanting to show their commitment to inclusivity can also have developer and testing teams that represent all types of people. Companies creating voice assistants may want to evaluate how they show support to people of all different sexual and gender identities and consider the benefits of an inclusive voice assistant.  

At SoundHound Inc., we have all the tools and expertise needed to create custom voice assistants and a consistent brand voice. Explore Houndify’s independent voice AI platform at Houndify.com and register for a free account. Want to learn more? Talk to us about how we can help bring your voice strategy to life.

Kristen is a content writer with a passion for storytelling and marketing. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking, reading, and spending time with her nieces and nephew.

Interested in Learning More?

Subscribe today to stay informed and get regular updates from SoundHound Inc.