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Why Siri's Voice Is Now A Man (And A Woman)

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Apple this week unveiled a new side to its much-maligned Siri that may make "her" appear more capable: The sassy personal assistant will soon be able to talk like a man.

According to Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who studies people's interaction with technology, research has shown people apply gender biases even to digital voices, and iPhone owners in the U.S. might be more inclined to overlook a male Siri's shortcomings than a female's. Starting this fall, iPhone and iPad users who speak English, French or German will be able to choose whether Siri answers in a woman’s voice or a man’s, Apple announced at its annual developer's conference on Monday.

“Female voices are seen, on average, as less intelligent than male voices,” noted Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships. “It’s safer in a sense to have a male voice in the sense that you’re not going to disappoint people as much.”

While Siri's new male persona may make the assistant seem more reliable, the shift more likely marks an effort by Apple to help users personalize their virtual personal assistants, helping iPhone owners forge a closer connection with their devices, said experts in human-machine interaction. Like customizing a phone ringtone or using a family portrait as a computer desktop photo, choosing between a male and female Siri will give Apple users one more way to make their devices uniquely theirs.

“The option is important because your phone has been so beautifully designed, and you want some flexibility to make it feel like your own,” said Blade Kotelly a lecturer on design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chief executive officer of StorytellingMachines. “You do create a deep relationship with the things that you talk to, and a lot of them want to have a different kind of quality.”

The male voice Apple will use for the U.S. version of Siri may sound familiar. It relies on the same voice actor who greets callers on the United Airlines help line and the Apple Support hotline, among other call centers, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for Nuance, which powers Siri’s speech recognition technology, declined to comment, noting that Apple "licenses Nuance’s technology for use in some of its products."

The idea of developing multiple personalities for Siri stems back years to the startup that created the first version of the assistant, which was later acquired by Apple. Siri’s original creators envisioned a suite of different Siri characters, and planned to integrate technology that would allow the assistant to mimic its user’s manner of speaking.

Yet the new, customizable Siri isn’t without its risks, said experts, who noted that giving iPhone owners more control over the assistant could erode some of the “magic” of the technology and may alienate users if Apple fails to give the male voice its own set of masculine phrases.

Men and women not only sound different when they speak, but typically employ different terms and words, Nass noted. For example, men are more likely to use definite articles, such as “two” or “five,” while women are more likely to use general terms, such as “some” or “a few.” An artificial voice that sounds male, but uses female-sounding phrases, won’t seem reliable to the human speaking to it.

“If Apple uses the exact same comments for a male and female voice, they’ll undermine trust in the interface,” said Nass. “You can’t just slap a voice on. “

Apple did not respond to a query seeking confirmation that Siri’s English-speaking male voice would have its own suite of answers. Without it, said Nass, “they’re making a big mistake.”

Rolling out an adjustable Siri, which has become a pop-culture icon in its own right, may dilute the assistant's personality in the eyes of Apple users. Garmin’s GPS systems can speak to drivers in more than a dozen different voices, from Darth Vader to the Cookie Monster, a feature that makes the gadget more personalized, but may also make it seem more generic.

Siri in turn may come to be viewed “more like a technology than a personality,” said Leila Takayama, a research scientist and manager specializing in human-machine interaction at Willow Garage, a personal robotics firm. “Before it was just this magic female being inside our phone and now that you can mess with it, it becomes more of a tool.”

In some countries, including France and the U.K., Siri debuted with a male voice. The dominant gender stereotypes in different nations helped determine whether Siri was endowed with a male or female voice, experts surmised. In the U.S., researchers have found users more accustomed to feminine avatars. Virtual personas with female voices can be seen as less knowledgeable than their male counterparts, but female voices are preferred in avatars that serve in a helper or assistant role, said Nass.

In other roles -- and other countries -- female voices may not fly at all. In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, Nass documents how BMW was forced to recall one of its cars because male drivers in Germany didn’t trust the female voice offering directions from the car’s navigation system. In Japan, a call center operated by Fidelity would rely on an automated female voice to give stock quotes, but would transfer customers to an automated male voice for transactions, Nass explained.

Researchers speculated that changing Siri’s gender could actually alter how people use the device. Though it’s doubtful anyone outside of Apple will see the data, Takayama noted she’d be keen to examine whether people would be more or less direct when speaking to a male voice rather than a female voice, whether Siri's gender would change the nature of people’s queries and which Siri voice keep us engaged longer. Which Siri we trust more -- male or female -- may ultimately depend on what we ask, Takayama added.

"If you're looking for an action movie, you might more easily persuade a user if it's a male voice because it's a stereotypically male category of movies," said Takayama. "If you're looking at recipes, that might seem more credible from a female voice."

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