By Elliot Leavy, former editor of the technology and innovation magazine maize and editor of culture magazine BOZO. He has written for numerous publications around the world focussing on technology, belief systems, and culture.
Siri and Alexa encourage sexism, apparently. So, to avoid any possibility of reinforcing negative stereotypes, the Beeb has made its version a male. But its plan isn’t without flaws.
After ignoring millions of people outside London for the full duration of Brexit, the BBC has finally given Northern viewers a voice.
Say hello to ‘Beeb’, its new in-house digital assistant which will greet its masters in a “warm and friendly” male accent from the North of England.
The decision to opt for the soothing tones of a Northern male, rather than a female, was to avoid the “problematic associations” female digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa apparently foster in society.
Last year, a report by Unesco found that submissive responses given to rude queries by the artificial machines reinforced real-world stereotypes, concluding that this was due to the firms behind the tech being “staffed by overwhelmingly male engineering teams”.
Andy Webb, the BBC’s (male) head of development of its voice technology, stated that ‘Beeb’ “reflected the diversity of the audience in the UK”, and will be trained to speak in other accents as time goes on. The implication is that, by adding more voices, “problematic associations” would be reduced.
Why this might be the case is not immediately apparent. In reality, Beeb’s ever-growing roster of accents could open up a can of worms for many more “problematic associations” in the future.
For example, I could demand that my northern Beeb “get back down the mine” if he gives me an answer I don’t like. Or tell Scouse Beeb to “calm down, calm down”. Or even threaten Scottish Beeb with a Glasgow kiss.
See the issue here? The BBC’s solution, created by a fear of offending people, is likely to lead to more problems down the line. It’s this whack-a-mole approach to rights, which is as divisive as it is ineffective, that makes gestures such as this pointless. Maybe it should just use a gender-neutral robotic voice instead.
Beeb is now available to beta-test on Windows 10.