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Last Week Online #23 – Female voice assistants reinforce gender bias

Anna Loverus
Anna Loverus
3 min read

"We didn't really think about that". This week there's a lot of mismatch between short term goals and long term consequences.

Female voice assistants reinforce gender bias according to a new UN report

When a user tells Alexa, "You're hot," her standard response has been a cheerful "That's nice of you to say!". Most virtual assistants have female names by default. Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa are only a small sample of technology with female voices and a submissive or even flirtatious style.

According to a new report released by Unesco this week, the problem stems from a lack of diversity within the industry that is reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes. The report borrows its title — "I'd Blush if I Could" — from a standard response from when a user hurled a gendered expletive at Apples voice assistant Siri.

"The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them," said Saniye Gulser Corat, Unesco's director for gender equality, in a statement. One particularly worrying reflection of this is the "deflecting, lacklustre or apologetic responses" that these assistants give to insults.

Baked into their humanized personalities are generations of problematic perceptions of women. When these assistants become standard in homes across the world, they are putting a stamp on society and can influence interactions with real women, the report warns. "The more that culture teaches people to equate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants — and penalized for not being assistant-like." the report puts it.

Apple and Google declined to comment on the report.

The constant flood of negative privacy news shifts consumers behaviour

Location opt-ins are down in Europe post-GDPR. A constant drumbeat of negative privacy news in Europe and North America are slowly changing consumer behaviours. Northern and Western Europe have the lowest location opt-in rates – 4.4% and 2.1% respectively. This is a significant drop from a year ago. The same trend can be seen in the US, where location opt-ins are down 25%.

However, in specific domains such as entertainment and food, location sharing is up considerably. This shows the advantage of sharing location for mobile app users in these contexts. It also suggests that marketers and brands will need to make a stronger case for location permissions going forward.

Data from more than 700 million users were examined in an extensive study by Airship, who's been reviewing user engagement with mobile app permissions and notifications worldwide since May 2018.

European customers take the hit when the trade war between the US and China is getting heated

Last Thursday the White House put sanctions on Huawei's business, prohibiting the company from importing US-based tech, while blocking American telecommunications firms from using foreign-made equipment that could pose a threat to national security – precisely what Washington has accused Huawei of doing.

On Sunday, in compliance with these sanctions, Google reportedly stopped all business dealings with Huawei. This included ceasing certification of Huawei's unreleased devices for Android updates, the Play Store and Google Play Services. It was later revealed that the US tech ban would only have a limited effect on Huawei's existing devices, with a promise that security updates would still arrive and that Google's services would continue to work. The US government also temporarily eased the tech restriction, to allow Huawei to give their existing devices a few more months of support.

Huawei phones are mostly unavailable in the United States, and Google's services have long been blocked in China by the government, Huawei has expanded at an extraordinary rate in Europe, capturing more than a quarter of the smartphone market. European customers will, therefore, be hit harder than those in the United States or China.

Google's action is "potentially catastrophic" for Huawei's hopes in Europe, said Ben Stanton, a senior analyst at the research firm Canalys.

Tool of the week: Campsite ⛺️

Are you a "link in bio" type of person? Happily sharing stuff in channels not made for linking people to the gems you want to share? Campsite gives you the possibility to create something as rudimentary as a link list. Sure, link lists have existed for more than 20 years now. But if you're not in the mood to build one yourself (or have the skills to do so) Campsite offers you one that is neatly styled, easy to update and made specifically for your social media bios.

It's used by brands and publishers to create a better content sharing experience – especially from Instagram. But also and by ordinary people like you and I who want to share the NYTimes long reads we never really read, but wish we did.

Last Week Online

Anna Loverus Twitter

Thinker and doer. Loves running, wine, and human behaviour.


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