In Brief

BBC launches digital assistant with northern male accent


3 June 2020

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” said Saniye Gulser Corat, UNESCO’s director for gender equality, speaking in 2019. “The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether A.I. technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”

Now, the BBC has acted on Gulser Corat's advice, opting to give its new digital assistant a male voice to avoid the “problematic associations of female-voiced rivals like Amazon's Alexa or the default setting of Apple's Siri.

The new voice-activated service, which will launch this week under the name “Beeb”, will have a male, northern English accent to avoid “problematic associations” of female-voiced assistant and to reflect “the diversity of the audience in the UK”.

The topic of gendered AI was tackled by critic Tamar Shafrir in Disegno #12. In her piece 'Voices from the Ether', Shafrir wrote that “we hear the incorporeal female voice as an expression of personal attention, even when it repeats the same pre-programmed message to anyone within earshot”.

Shafrir additionally noted that the ubiquity of female-voiced AI was not matched by similar attention to the voices of actual women, citing the additional levels of criticism that women in the media face. “Contemporary user-listeners seem more comfortable with the female voice as a disembodied entity than as one connected to a correspondingly female brain,” she wrote.

The decision on Beeb's voice gains an additional wrinkle through the decision to use a northern English accent. Regional UK accents have traditionally been underrepresented on the BBC, with the broadcaster playing a sizeable role in cultural perceptions of British accents being reducible to the southern received pronunciation.

Beeb is intended as a rival service to those offered by US tech companies such as Amazon. Grace Boswood, the chief operating officer of the BBC’s design and engineering department, said: “There has to be an alternative to them holding all the cards.”

Beeb will not launch with hardware in the style of Amazon's Echo, but will instead be dependent upon other platforms incorporating the service into their offering. While the service will be more limited than that of other voice assistants, the BBC hopes that Beeb will gain traction by specialising in delivering access to the broadcaster's content.