Tech

Imagine if Alexa had no gender — researchers have created a voice that is neither male nor female

Key Points
  • The virtual assistant is called Q, and it's designed to be genderless.
  • 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.
  • Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant can't seem to break out of the female-first image they were made in. By all indications, Q could help with that.
A gender neutral sign is posted outside a bathrooms at Oval Park Grill on May 11, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Debate over transgender bathroom access spreads nationwide as the U.S. Department of Justice countersues North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory from enforcing the provisions of House Bill 2 (HB2) that dictate what bathrooms transgender individuals can use.
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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.

Meanwhile Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant can't seem to break out of the female-first image they were made in. Q could help with that.

—CNBC's Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

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