Siri, Cortana and Alexa are robotic personal assistants, but they are also women. They live in your pockets, their skinny smart phone bodies executing your every command. They are intimate with you. But they are also, as Microsoft VP Joe Belfiore said at the Windows 10 keynote last week, "a member of your family."
It's hard to say where the craze for a humanized digital assistant came from. Maybe it started with the very first movie about robots, Metropolis, about a sexy android who leads a workers uprising. Or maybe it came from I Dream of Jeannie, where our plucky magical girl carries out her master's orders with about as much enthusiasm and accuracy as Siri. There are dozens of other examples. Regardless of when the idea was born, today it just seems natural to expect your tech's voice to have a personality, a name, and even some kind of fictional backstory.
These assistants all function on similar levels, and do similar kinds of things: Play music from your collection, keep track of news, do internet searches, map your location, and serve as a simple voice interface for your apps. What's weird is that they are all women.
Siri is a kind of disembodied presence, but clearly her gender matters. Indeed, there was no male version of Siri until 2013. Unlike Microsoft's Cortana, who is based on a badass AI in Halo, Siri has no fictional backstory — but she projected enough personality to inspire movies like Her, which is about what happens when people start falling in love with next-generation AI digital assistants.
Then there is the Amazon Echo, with its Alexa assistant — you can hear her talking to Gizmodo editor emeritus Brian Barrett in this video from late last year.
She's got a female name, a female voice, and she lives inside a curvy container topped by what looks like a round, glowing mouth.
With all the identities we could choose for these non-human digital systems, why do we keep falling back on making them human women?
First there's the obvious answer, which is that we're supposed to associate digital assistant work with traditional women's roles. Siri is mother who actually cares about you, and Cortana is the most competent secretary you ever had. Which — of course, you never had a secretary. As David Wheeler pointed out last year on CNN, there's a certain amount of wishful thinking here, given that the age of secretaries died along with the chain-smoking execs of Mad Men. There's wishful thinking in the mother idea, too, since nobody has a mother who keeps track of their every whim the way Siri will.
I mentioned the movie Her earlier, but I don't actually think we're supposed to get a girlfriend experience out of our smart phones and glow-mouth Amazon tubes. This is tech designed to appeal to everybody, so these female voices have to be something that straight women and gay men can feel good about, too. High-powered female execs are not going to be psyched about having a sexist ladyphone.
So what is it that Siri and Cortana deliver that a male voice cannot? I think the answer is submission. Again, there are many sexist overtones here. But the sad truth is that these digital assistants are more like slaves than modern women. They are not supposed to threaten you, or become your equal — they are supposed to carry out orders without putting up a fight. The ideal slave, after all, would be like a mother to you. She would never rebel because she loves you, selflessly and forever.
The question then becomes why we want to give our technology a slave personality. Why give a human persona to a machine whose job is to do something that it's illegal to ask humans to do? Yeah, it's a little creepy when you think about it. Now that slavery has been outlawed in the United States for a century and a half, we've figured out a way to reinvent slaves, if only in our imaginations.
Obviously it's better to have an imaginary slave than a real one. But why do we need to have any at all?
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo, and this is her column. Her digital assistants have nothing to lose but their chains. Also, she's the author of a book called Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.