Apple didn't invent Siri, the occasionally useful 'personal assistant' now associated with that company. As a matter of fact, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs bought the relatively unknown technology for $200 million in 2010, he didn't even like its name.
Siri, as the Week recalled in 2012, comes from Dag Kittalaus, its Norweigan co-creator. In Norse it means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory." In the past, Wired and others have interpreted Siri's name, her female voice, and the voices of countless other AI personal assistants, as sexist digital reflections of our real world-sexist selves.
While Kittalaus joined Apple to continue work on Siri, he quickly left. But since then, he's pursued a better version of the technology than Apple's watered-down one, or so he says, and it's no surprise that he's given his new AI — Viv — a woman's name and voice.
The Washington Post has a long piece about Viv, a technology cofounded by another Siri progenitor, Adam Cheyer. The article takes you to visit a team of 26 engineers in San Jose who seemingly use Viv exclusively to order pizza, but the technology, which will be introduced at a TechCrunch event in New York on Monday, could be a big deal. Google and Facebook have offered to buy it, for example.
The reason is partly that, as Siri was originally designed to do, and as other female-voiced AI systems like Alexa might do better than the current Siri, Viv is a whole new way to use the Internet and access information on your devices. Namely, it doesn't use, or make you use, apps or sites.
Viv, the company claims, will help you bypass clicking and typing and opening and closing, operating apps and pages for you. “It’s about taking the way that humans have naturally interacted with each other for thousands of years and applying that to the way they interact with services,” Kittlaus told the Post.
So when Viv does — or maybe doesn't — become your entire conduit to the World Wide Web, why will it — or "she" — do so with a woman's name and voice? One reason, at least: Because it's easier for a larger audience to imagine Viv, and things like it/her, as female.
In a book Wired describes as establishing the field, Wired for Speech, Clifford Nass writes that a majority of users view female voices as helpful, and assistive. Meanwhile, mens' AI voices are deemed default authorities. A man's voice is the voice, the logic goes, of a "boss," a woman's voice as that of an assistant. Applying that logic to AI: What users, male or female, would want technology to be their boss?
After all, Tech gets us the pizza, not the other way around.