Gizmos

Why It Matters That Alexa and Google Assistant Finally Have Male Voices

It’s more than just John Legend.

Photo illustration: Google Home devices with alternating mustaches and pink bows.
It’s taken these assistants long enough to diversify their vocal repertoire.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Google.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant were all female. The topic has been much discussed and researched in recent years, with data offering as one explanation for the phenomenon that both men and women prefer the sound of female voices. “They’re warmer and more relatable, and make people receptive to voice-activated technology,” Fast Company explained in March.

Many virtual assistant users (and critics) weren’t satisfied—why is that we’re so OK bossing around a female voice and not a male one? Writing for the Atlantic in 2016, Adrienne LaFrance said, “The simplest explanation is that people are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in administrative roles—and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations.” There have been some exceptions. Apple bucked the trend with Siri by offering male voices in some dialects, such as British English, and began offering male and female options for all three English dialects with iOS 10. Amazon, meanwhile offers multiple ways to hail its female-voice assistant—Alexa, Amazon, Echo, or Computer—while Google’s feminine assistant has lacked a female name from the get-go.

Recently, however, Google and Amazon have added new vocal options for their assistants. While it’s offered a male voice alternative since October, last week, Google announced six new voices for its Google Assistant, notably including the crooning tones of R&B singer John Legend. On Wednesday, Amazon introduced eight new male and female voices that developers can implement in their Alexa skills. (The primary Alexa voice will remain unchanged.)

It’s taken these assistants long enough to diversify their vocal repertoire. Alexa debuted in 2014 and Google Assistant in 2016. The reason for the holdup, at least in part, may have had to do with how these voice personalities are created. Historically, recording audio for a voice assistant has been a lengthy process, requiring the voice actor to recite hours of words, lines, and sounds. The alternative was a computer-generated voice that sounded distinctly digital. Now, companies like Google can use smaller samples of recorded audio to digitally generate a broad variety of words and phrases that still sound human. With this technology in place, they can create digital assistant voices with a fraction of the recording time.

The vocal variety now offered by these companies minimizes the subservient female assistant vibe. And as these assistants are increasingly being adopted in households with children, bossing around not just a female-voiced assistant seems like a healthy step in teaching gender equality and eliminating traditional gender role expectations. For younger children anthropomorphizing the bot, a changing voice may also make it clear that this is a computer entity, not a person. These new voices also generally give consumers more customizability with their devices, which may make them more comfortable using them more often. And particularly with Amazon’s voices, the update gives developers more creative freedom with their third-party skills: It allows them to choose the voice that best personifies their own application.

There are a few potential downsides to these vocal additions. If unexpected, a different voice cropping up on your assistant could be incredibly creepy—similar to when Echo units were laughing for no apparent reason. Voice change pranks seem like an inevitable near-future addition to YouTube. The multiple voices could also pose a problem from a marketing standpoint. We’ve come to know each assistant by their distinct vocal pattern, which also gets pushed in commercials. This move could dilute their identities, making them less distinct and recognizable.

Even so, the variety is a welcome addition to our virtual assistants. Our digital helpers are becoming increasingly personalized—thanks to features like Alexa Blueprints—and the option of new voices furthers that trend. In terms of diversity and customization, the world is better off with assistants of different vocal timbres, cadences, and genders. If we could get a couple more celebrity voices to join the likes of John Legend, that would be even better.

Correction, May 21: Google didn’t introduce its first male voice option last week; it had added a single male voice option in October before adding more option at its recent I/O conference.