Google is issuing an update to its Assistant service and mobile app today that will assign colors to its various artificial intelligence voice options. The change will be rolling out starting today and continue through the week, for users in the US using the English language option. Whatever voice option a user is currently using will be given a color, and the colors have been randomly selected by Google so as not to associate any one color with a certain gender or intonation.
Prior to the change, Google simply listed its eight available voices as “Voice 1” and “Voice 2” and so on, and alternated between male and female-sounding voices as you tap through the list. Now, the company will assign a color to each one you can scroll through from left to right in a carousel layout.
This seems like a thoughtful approach to avoid the pitfall of using only a female-sounding name and voice, as Amazon did with the initial roll out of its Alexa assistant and Apple with Siri. Of course, you can now change the wake word and voice option for Alexa, while Apple added a male voice for Siri two years after the assistant’s initial launch. But it’s become a bit of an industry norm to associate AI assistants with disembodied female voices, as is the case in the portrayal of AI in numerous Hollywood films and television shows over the years. (The exceptions being HAL 9000 and any Jarvis-like robot-butler AIs you might come across.)
These types of sociological reinforcements by way of technology may have an impact on how we think of and view these personified software products going forward, in the same way that parents fear young children are being raised not to behave courteously or say thank you because it’s not required when conversing with a digital assistant in the home. Google is even going out of its way to address the latter issue, with a feature called “pretty please” announced back in May that’s designed to teach and reward children for politeness when engaging the Assistant via voice.
The color idea isn’t entirely without issue, especially if, say, the color pink gets assigned a female voice and inadvertently results in reinforcing rigid gender roles. But it looks like, for the time being, Google is taking a measured approach here and could be willing to change that approach if it turns out not to have the desired effect. In the meantime, the most pressing question right now is what color will be assigned to John Legend’s Assistant voice.