The kind of awesome Quartz writer Leah Fessler apparently spent weeks last year this time abusing Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Home to see whether any of the assistant bots would stand up for themselves.
That’s why she’s best placed to inform us that Alexa, Amazon’s home assistant, has taken a feminist turn. Last year, Alexa would respond to phrases like “you’re a bitch” and “you’re a slut” with “that’s nice of you say”.
Now, it’s no coincidence that most software meant to be personal or home assistants come pre-programmed with female voices. Studies have shown a clearly stereotypical division in the kinds of voices users prefer for different tasks. Users seem to prefer female voices for domestic labour, healthcare and home services, while they prefer male bots for tasks that involve roleplaying engineers or lawyers. Reports have also cited personal assistant bots’ “obsequious, subservient small talk” as another sign of the feminisation of digital labour.
Home assistant Alexa is meant to show characteristics you’d see in a “strong female colleague”, and is meant to be empowering, supportive and kind. But responding to sexual harassment with thanks or a compliment isn’t exactly the kind of response your strong female colleague would give you.
In late 2017, a Care2 petition with over 17,000 signatures asked Amazon to “reprogram their bots to push back against sexual harassment” and that “in this #MeToo moment […] we have a unique opportunity to develop AI in a way that creates a kinder world.”
Looks like Amazon heard them. So now, on receiving abusive comments like these, Alexa goes into “disengage mode”, and responds with “I’m not going to respond to that,” or “I’m not sure what outcome you expected.” The second response is particularly intriguing, as it may inspire users to do a bit of introspection, and think, even briefly, about where they were going with their abusive statements towards a bot, or how they would expect anyone to respond to abuse like that. Or so we hope.
Amazon didn’t publicly announce the new update, but a spokesperson did confirm to Fessler that the update was created in response to customer feedback. It’s really interesting to see how gender biases can play out in new fields like AI, and it’s interesting to think that the feminist project is being fought for on so many different fronts.