Why we’re obsessed with female voice assistants.

An expert in voice recognition and speech technologies responds to the “Galatea.”

When Joseph Faber invented the Euphonia, a mid-19e analog voice synthesizer of the last century, people weren’t impressed. They found Faber’s invention to be a strange device with little or no purpose. (He eventually found a home in PT Barnum’s circus). In an attempt to create a machine capable of mimicking human speech, Faber was physically attached to his invention, manipulating its bellows, gears and hardware to produce human-like utterances – from short speeches to ghostly renditions of “God Save the Queen” – with a flat effect. A version of the machine was designed with a female face attached to its bellows, curly hair, and clear, smooth skin. The idea of ​​a woman serving as a manifestation of a man’s technological feat is not new. From PAT in the 1999 Disney TV movie smart home to the synths of the Channel 4 series humans (2015-2018), female conversational AI is embedded in many of our visions of the future. While Faber’s machine may not have succeeded, it serves as a reminder of humanity’s fascination with creating something in our image and having technology do something greater than we could have ever imagined. originally.

At 21st century, avatars of artificial intelligence such as BINA48 and Sophia answer questions and interact with a questioning and curious audience. These mediations often perpetuate limited constructions of femininity as servile and pleasing to the eyes and ears. Like Faber’s Euphonia, these are characters with softer, delicate facial features designed to serve or entertain a human audience or individual. Though the mimicry can be crude – a far cry from the sophistication of the humanoids in Michael Crichton’s HBO adaptation Westworld– these machine-women remind us of the hidden scripts underlying technological advancements throughout history, from Siri to the distant past.

In Greek mythology, Galatea is the story of a sculptor who falls in love with his creation: an ivory statue of a female figure. The artist’s subconscious desires come to life in the beautiful statue, and the goddess Aphrodite grants her wish, bringing her creation to life. Drawing on this myth, Ysabelle Cheung’s short story of the same name weaves with subtlety and precision the themes of mimicry, cloning and the voice. His story prompts us to contemplate what women might desire female AI figures originally programmed to please, attract and serve a coded male user. In Cheung’s “Galatea”, the female characters, both human and AI, model irreducible nuances in their utterances and speech, despite being programmed (digitally) by their creators and through (analog) social forces, expectations and gender norms.

The story is told in the second person, filtering the reader’s experience through the perspective of the narrator who encounters Galatea, an AI-powered robot, and her male owner. During an evening, the narrator begins to pick up echoes between her and this programmed female figure. The way the narrator interprets and frames Galatea is fluctuating: Galatea is first imagined to operate more or less like a robotic sex worker, then as a household appliance, a kind of “smart home” hub – and later, as a disturbing recreation of the owner’s musical prodigy ex-wife.

The story begins with the narrator inside the apartment of Galatea’s landlord, a man with whom she has gone on several dates. The narrator points out the finer details of the house: a counterfeit Noguchi table, a pair of convincing flameless candles, and the neat symmetry of the decor. The setting evokes sleek, modern townhouses filled with marble and hardwood, all sharp points and edges, affirming the ability of humans to exert complete control over the material circumstances of our lives, regardless of the messy vagaries of geography, wildlife and weather. . Specifying our needs and desires through what we possess could bring satisfaction, relief or consolation.

After discovering and interacting with Galatea, the narrator’s identity begins to blur; Galatea is dressed like the narrator, with a similar hairstyle, a particular instantiation of Chinese femininity. As the landlord’s ex-wife, who looks alike and works in the narrator’s office, Galatea plays the piano – the male landlord assumes our narrator also plays, which she both admits to be true and felt to be a stereotype . This moment provides insight into how a female AI could have been programmed and coded to align with local gender norms. Whether Galatea plays from an extensive catalog of classical piano pieces or sings songs by Taiwanese musician Teresa Teng, its creators had a specific likeness in mind that they knew would appeal to a particular group of customers: a stature, demeanor and voice. whom you could trust and rely on. The collision and blurring between narrator, AI, and ex-wife reveals these female figures as subtle permutations of each other, all programmed and optimized to meet the needs of a partner, an owner, a… a companion (male).

Contrary to The Women of Stepford, a 1972 novel (and film, in 1975 and 2004) that depicts a dystopian future for women subjugated and replaced by pleasant bots in the American suburbs, “Galatea” invites us to ask ourselves if consciousness can be transmuted from human to machine, and whether it could come from the limited programming of “companion robots”. Can we imagine a Galatea who acquires an imagination, a spirit of her own? Does the liberating turn at the end of Cheung’s story signal a transcendence or a transgression of the cultural expectations of Asian women that haunt the story’s triad of female characters?

For the AI ​​figure in “Galatea”, the interior of the house, a place of domestic life and sanctuary, is not a refuge but rather a place of continuous domestic work – piano performances and small enjoyable conversations to managing its owner’s networked devices while lying down. silently on standby. We are already experiencing the programming of smart technologies to emit the voices of our deceased loved ones, echoing the story of Cheung, in which the owner’s AI companion bears such an uncanny similarity to his ex-wife. With a gentle touch or the intonation of a wake word, our female-coded Siris, Alexas, and Cortanas command attention – a quasi-phalanx of helpful, cheerful female AIs, always ready to take our commands.

As a researcher specializing in speech recognition and assistive technologies, I keep coming back to the role speech plays in Cheung’s story. The skill of dialogue makes our titular AI irresistibly human, and our presumably human narrator somewhat machinic. The voices of the characters are the vehicle through which the organic and the artificial begin to mingle and blend. Galatea can move and talk with almost human grace, but her answers to the narrator’s questions about how she spends her time alone and her monologue about pianist Clara Schumann are what really fool the narrator and reader into believing that ‘she has reached a goal degree of human (or superhuman?) sensitivity.

Through multiple readings of the story, I still remember a moment from Louisa Hall’s 2015 novel Talk. In one vignette, a man, Karl Dettman, writes a letter to his wife about her conversations with an AI system, MARY. He writes: “Since you discovered my talking computer, you keep your conversation with him. Have you thought about how this might affect me? Coming home in such resounding silence? It’s like coming home with packed bags. I can feel you leaving me. The husband desperately seeks to understand what MARY has given his wife that he does not have. In Cheung’s story, Galatea also appeals, in an ambiguous way, to the narrator. Cheung lets us interpret for ourselves both a female-coded AI who seems to have outgrown her programming and a narrator whose bond with Galatea might rest on a growing tenderness, or on the recognition of an essential resemblance. These twin questions – whether the AI ​​can exceed its programmed limits and why the narrator is so transfixed by it – loom over an ending that serves as a metaphor for how we might shed our attachments, our fixations and our gender. . built.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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