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Meet Q, The Gender-Neutral Voice Assistant

For most people who talk to our technology — whether it's Amazon's Alexa, Apple Siri or the Google Assistant — the voice that talks back sounds female.

Some people do choose to hear a male voice.

Now, researchers have unveileda new gender-neutral option: Q.

"One of our big goals with Q was to contribute to a global conversation about gender, and about gender and technology and ethics, and how to be inclusive for people that identify in all sorts of different ways," says Julie Carpenter, an expert in human behavior and emerging technologies who worked on developing Project Q.

The voice of Q was developed by a team of researchers, sound designers and linguists in conjunction with the organizers of Copenhagen Pride week, technology leaders in an initiative called Equal AI and others.

They first recorded dozens of voices of people — those who identify as male, female, transgender or nonbinary. But sound designer Nis Norgaard ended up focusing on one voice, and altering it so that it sounded gender-neutral.

"It was really tricky, because your brain can tell if the voice has been pitched up and down," he told Wired. "It was difficult to work with these voices without destroying them."

Another goal of Q, Carpenter explains, is to give businesses an option to challenge gender stereotypes.

"There is a history of research that shows often that people might prefer to hear a female-sounding voice in some situations, particularly when the tasks associated with that voice are assistive," Carpenter says. Not only that, "they may prefer to hear a male voice ... where the voice needs to come from an authority source," like when giving directions.

"It really reinforces gender stereotypes," she adds

There are more than 57 million smart-speaker users in the U.S. according to a September 2018 survey conducted by Voicebot.ai, and that number is only expected to grow. While you won't hear Q on your phone or home assistant tomorrow, developers hope that companies will pick up Q as a more inclusive voice option.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.