Samsung’s new voice assistant Bixby has finally arrived, and unfortunately, it was accompanied by sexist descriptions for its male and female voice options.
Under “language and speaking style” in the Bixby menu, as several have pointed out on Twitter, the female voice was accompanied by descriptive tags such as “chipper, clear, and cheerful,” while the male voice was described as “assertive, confident, and clear.” After it was spotted and dissent circulated online, Samsung said it would remove the gendered hashtags, telling Gizmodo it is “working diligently to remove the hashtag descriptions from the Bixby service,” and it is “constantly learning from customer feedback.”
When Bixby was first announced, many were excited about Samsung’s choice of name, as historically, virtual assistants not only have female names but default to female voices (think: Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Home). As explored by both The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic last year, humanizing our assistants with name or a gendered voice helps people warm up to interacting with robots.
the hashtag equivalent of being told to smile
Here’s the thing: while some will persist that a couple of hashtags are a tiny issue, they’re also haggard reinforcements of gender stereotypes which makes them objectively sexist. It’s tiring having to constantly remind others that women in tech, in the workplace, in society have been personally battling diminutive language, generalizations, and workplace behavior on a day-to-day basis for ages. It’s also tiring seeing companies like Samsung continue to casually reinforce these stereotypes. While “cheerful” is a positive word, in this context, especially against the male “assertive” descriptor, it feels like the hashtag equivalent of being told to smile.
Samsung also doesn’t have the greatest history when it comes to portrayals of gender roles in its commercials and content. Its Galaxy S4 launch event featured skits so sexist, ABC’s Joanna Stern said, “I guess that tells you a bit about how tech companies continue to think about marketing to women.”
A 2013 ad for the Samsung 840 WVO Solid-State Drive shows a Pleasantville-like housewife in a kitchen saying she uses her computer to “look at pictures or videos of my children from family trips, use the internet, and help my children with their homework. And that’s about it.” Meanwhile, several men are featured managing “manly” problems like reformatting, backing data up, and file transfers. Our doe-eyed housewife, when presented with the SSD, says “What?” and “I don’t know how to [change the drive].” Ah, silly woman!
Samsung also published a new ad for today’s Bixby launch, showing users how to tinker with settings. Here, a man is cooking (how progressive!) and quickly becomes exasperated when his (presumable) girlfriend grabs his phone to check out the new voice assistant. She’s primarily interested in taking selfies with the right lighting and quickly screws up all his phone’s settings. “It’s... it’s okay,” he stammers with a blank look. “I... I can set them back.” (There’s also a casual reference to discovering he’s cheating on her at the end.)
Hey Samsung, a message: I’m assertive, I know my way around a computer, and right now, I’m definitely not cheerful. Do better.