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LISTEN To The World’s First “Genderless Voice” For Digital Assistants, Called “Q”

"For a future with no male or female"


Well, file this under creepy!

Why is science always trying to do away with God’s creation?

No male, no female….that’s what they want.

And while they can’t quite get rid of true biology yet, they’re starting with things like the sound of the voice for AI digital assistants like Amazon Alexa, Siri and Cortana.

Oh, and I did I mention it’s name?

They call it “Q”.

Interesting huh?  Very.  

Want to hear it?

Here you go:

Backup extended version:

Here's what Wired had to say about it:

BOOT UP THE options for your digital voice assistant of choice and you’re likely to find two options for the gender you prefer interacting with: male or female. The problem is, that binary choice isn’t an accurate representation of the complexities of gender. Some folks don’t identify as either male or female, and they may want their voice assistant to mirror that identity. As of now, they’re out of luck.

But a group of linguists, technologists, and sound designers—led by Copenhagen Pride and Vice's creative agency Virtue—are on a quest to change that with a new, genderless digital voice, made from real voices, called Q. Q isn’t going to show up in your smartphone tomorrow, but the idea is to pressure the tech industry into acknowledging that gender isn’t necessarily binary, a matter of man or woman, masculine or feminine.

The project is confronting a new digital universe fraught with problems. It’s no accident that Siri and Cortana and Alexa all have female voices—research shows that users react more positively to them than they would to a male voice. But as designers make that choice, they run the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes, that female AI assistants should be helpful and caring, while machines like security robots should have a male voice to telegraph authority. While this isn’t the first attempt to craft a gender-neutral voice, with Q, the thinking goes, we can not only make technology more inclusive but also use that technology to spark conversation on social issues.

The team began by recording the voices of two dozen people who identify as male, female, transgender, or nonbinary. Each person read a predetermined list of sentences. “At that point, we didn't know if we were going to layer the voices, so we needed the same sentence in the same tempo as close as we could get it,” says sound designer Nis Nørgaard. By merging the voices together, they might be able to create some kind of average. “But that was too difficult,” he says.

Instead, Nørgaard zeroed in on one person’s voice, which registered somewhere between what we’d consider masculine or feminine. That comes down largely to frequency, or pitch: Men tend to have a larger vocal tract, which produces a lower-sounding timbre. But there’s a sweet spot between 145 and 175 hertz, a range that research shows we perceive as more gender-neutral. Go higher and you’ll perceive the voice as typically female; go lower and it becomes more masculine. You can try it out for yourself in this interactive by dragging the bubble up and down to change the frequency of the voice.

Nørgaard started to tweak that one sweet-spot voice. “It was really tricky, because your brain can tell if the voice has been pitched up and down,” he says. “It was difficult to work with these voices without destroying them.”

Nørgaard created four variants, which the team then sent to 4,500 people in Europe. One voice stuck out to the survey participants. “People were saying, ‘This is a neutral voice. I can't tell the gender of this voice,’” Nørgaard says. “In the beginning, I was like, this is going to be difficult. But when we got feedback from these 4,500 people, I think we nailed it, actually.” That voice became the basis for Q.

Q, then, can now literally give a voice to the voiceless in modern technology. “I think it's really important to have representation for trans people when it comes to not only AI, but voices in general,” says Ask Stig Kistvad, a trans man who lent his voice to the project. “It's a new thing in the last three to five years, that trans people are actually represented in popular culture.” It’s only natural, Kistvad says, that some developers eventually embrace them, too.

This is particularly important when it comes to voice assistants, a market that’s projected to grow by 35 percent a year until at least 2023. “It's going to become an increasingly commonplace way for us to communicate with tech,” says Project Q collaborator Julie Carpenter, a research fellow with the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, which explores the social issues around technology. “Naming a home assistant Alexa, which sounds female, can be problematic for some people, because it reinforces this stereotype that females assist and support people in tasks.”

To be fair, tech companies aren’t necessarily in the business of maliciously excluding voices that don’t neatly align with the male-female binary. But they most certainly have the power to develop something like a genderless voice, and at the very least, they can start thinking harder about the voices their products default to using. Maybe they think anything outside the "norm" would be too distracting for a product that's utilitarian in nature (ask question, get answer). "But one thing we can do is push what the norm is," says Anna Jørgensen, a linguist who worked on Project Q. "And we should do that."

Even CNBC covered it:

Last year, I wrote an opinion piece lamenting the number of female virtual assistants on the market.

I asked major tech companies — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, if we're naming names — for virtual assistants with traditionally male voices where they didn't exist and for a more neutral default setting where they did. I thought I was asking for choice, but a joint venture by Vice's creative agency Virtue and Copenhagen Pride has just shown me up and invented a third, undeniably compelling option.

The virtual assistant is called Q, and it's designed to be genderless. It sounds neither male nor female — or seems to fluctuate between the two depending on how intensely you're listening for a gendered bent. 

Q is a composite of five voices, recorded and then altered to match a gender-neutral range of pitches, as defined by a linguist and researcher. It's scientific and definably gender-neutral, and it establishes criteria by which other assistants could follow suit.

Q checks a lot of the boxes that tech companies frequently call upon to justify their own gendered virtual assistants: warmth, helpfulness, a sense of authority. I can imagine Q reading out news headlines or a text from a relative. It even has a pleasantly ambiguous European accent.

Virtue and Copenhagen Pride have high ambitions to embed the virtual assistant in everything from personal tech to public transit.

"We aim to get the attention of leading technological companies that work with AI to ensure they are aware that a gender binary normativity excludes many people and to inspire them by showing how easy it would actually be to recognize that more than two genders exist when developing artificial intelligence devices. This is about giving people choices and options," Thomas Rasmussen, head of communication for Copenhagen Pride said in a statement announcing Q.

The only hitch: Q is just a voice at this point. There's no AI framework underpinning the assistant, which means Q can't actually understand and address your requests yet.

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