The iconic sound of Siri, Apple’s voice-activated virtual assistant, is no longer the default. Instead, Apple’s latest iOS update, offers users "more diverse options" for Siri’s voice to choose from when setting up a device in English. Apple said the new voices use neural text-to-speech technology that allows "for an incredibly natural sound."
This is a positive step forward as it allows people to choose the voice that they prefer without the defaults bias coming into play. "These updates further Apple’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, with products and services that are designed to better reflect our customers and the world," the company said in its announcement about the iOS 14.5 update.
In 2019, a report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed that assigning female genders to virtual assistants reinforced negative gender biases. The report found that by using a female voice for AI-powered assistants, gender stereotypes were being perpetuated. "Companies, staffed by overwhelmingly male engineering teams, have built AI systems that cause their feminized digital assistants to greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation," the report stated. "Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are ... docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like 'hey' or 'OK'," it added.
The two new voices also bring some much-needed variety to the voices of Siri. The two new voices use source talent recordings that are then run through Apple's Neural text to the speech engine. The new voices are available to English-speaking users around the world and Siri users can select a personal preference of voice in 16 languages. More diversity in voice, tone and regional dialect can only be a positive development for how inclusive smart devices feel, the report said.