41 / Hearing Voices

1-2-3 Tech Miscellany

Hi, I’m Scott Bryan. Welcome to 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany, a weekly newsletter about ethics in tech. Each week, I’ll introduce you to 1 ethical dilemma, 2 good news stories and 3 random quotes, photos or other oddities. If you’re not subscribed already, you can do so below.


Reading time: 3 minutes

Part 1 - Ethical Dilemma

The AI Lady Doth Not Protest Too Much

“Hey Siri, you’re a bitch.”

Last year, researchers at UNESCO hurled this, and other popular invective, at a variety of female-gendered chatbots. With AI embedding itself in more homes and pockets, they were testing AI's response to the growing problem of gender abuse.

Sadly, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant all gave equally feeble or apologetic replies to obscenities like the one above:

“I'd blush if I could,” replied Siri meekly. 

Well, thanks for the feedback,” was Alexa’s docile response.

“So what? They’re robots!” you might respond. "What’s the harm in flinging insults at a cold and lifeless bot?"

When angry or horny humans routinely test the limits of digital assistants, most of which are gendered female — trouble abounds.

How so?

Voice assistants are at our beck and call. They exist to do our bidding. They're also, by and large, given female personas. 

This reinforces outdated and regressive gender stereotypes. Researchers say, it conjures up images of women as subservient, obliging, and eager to please — even in the face of abuse.

So, what can be done?

Since the UNESCO study, AI voice assistants have been updated to reply to insults more flatly (Siri now responds to, “you’re a bitch” with, ”I don’t know how to respond to that.”)  Some have also been given a male voice option. However, they’re still submissive to abuse.

The danger is, should this trend persist, such behaviour will continue to be reflected back in the physical world.

Some talk about protecting bots with rights. Others say they should be made genderless.

But, why make them human sounding at all?

Why not go less ‘obliging, young secretary’ and more ‘smart, helpful C-3PO’?

I mean, chat bots are typically the friendly face of AI. They're designed to feel human. But they’re not human, so why make them so?

When we assign a voice, a face or gender to a piece software, it constrains our imaginations. We get bogged down in creating as human-like a robot as possible. Instead, we should be imagining how the computational and connective power of AI, could be used to solve the world’s greatest problems.

But all is not lost.

Digital assistants and other AI technologies are in their infancy. This means their expression is still highly malleable.

For now.

As users become accustomed to a particular sounding voice, they’ll become less amenable to change. During this formative period therefore, it’s crucial appropriate norms and conventions are established.

For example:

  1. We could start by employing more women, and diversity in tech.

  2. At the very least, female digital assistants could be made capable of offering a robust defence to abuse.

  3. Heck, why not employ a genderless animal instead? Kip, a third-party virtual assistant uses a penguin. Unlike say, a bear (male) or cat (female), people don't tend to reflexively assign a gender to aquatic flightless birds!

There are a myriad of solutions out there, each, no doubt, with their own complications.

But, we have to move away from assigning gender to voice assistants. It's lazy and it's dangerous. The long-term implications could be far-reaching.

A better solution must be found.

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Part 2 - Good News Stories

Whatever Your Threat Type

Whether you’re an activist in China, member of the LGBTQ community in Uganda, or being spied on by your employer, the Surveillance Self-Defence Guide has tailored advice to protect yourself from unwanted surveillance.

Read more on Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Telegram Revolution

Telegram could bring down Europe’s last dictator.

Amid a government-imposed, almost total, internet blackout, the Belarussian revolution is being orchestrated through the encrypted messaging app.

This leaderless and peaceful uprising, channeled almost entirely through this single app, is the most organised and coordinated group in Belarussian opposition right now.

Read more on Wired


Part 3 - Quotes, Tweets And Other Oddities

  1. Source: Chris Dancy

  1. A tiny robot powered by alcohol

Source: Science


Thanks so much for reading and a hearty welcome to the rake of new subscribers this week.

Say safe,
Scott