Siri gains a new gender-neutral voice option in latest iOS update
Apple has developed a new Siri voice, now available in the beta versions of its iOS 15.4 software, that doesn't sound obviously male or female. The decision to introduce a gender-neutral voice is one that sees the tech giant taking yet another step away from the criticism that, historically, digital assistants have reinforced unfair gender stereotypes.
Over the years, industry observers and experts argued how the creation of voice assistants with female-sounding names -- like Alexa, Siri and Cortana -- which also speak with female-sounding voices, implied that women should be the ones to do your bidding at any time and even take your abuse. A U.N. study additionally called out the female voiced-assistants and their submissive and sometimes even flirty and coy styles.
More problematically, the decision to make so many of the virtual assistants female by default was likely driven by a lack of diversity in the teams responsible for building our everyday technology. That issue doesn't just lead to thoughtless choices with AI voices, it has also delayed the advance of useful tools for women. For example, it took years for Apple to realize that its Health app should probably include a period-tracking feature, considering it's a health measure relevant to roughly half the human population.
Apple, to its credit, did address concerns with the Siri voice last year when it issued an update that added more diverse voices and, notably, also made it so Siri's voice would no longer default to being female.
But what if you didn't have to think about the gender of your AI voice assistant at all?
That's clearly the intention here with the addition of the new and now fifth Siri voice, though Apple hasn't yet explicitly said that's the case.
However, the iOS software's code provides some hints toward Apple's thinking.
Developer Steve Mosser found a reference to a gender-neutral Siri voice in earlier versions of the iOS 15.4 beta, and this week he noted the fifth American Siri voice was added to Beta 4 with the filename of "Quinn."
iOS 15.4 Beta 4 changes 🧵: Apple adds a 5th American Siri voice with filename ‘Quinn’ pic.twitter.com/HFQZV1oF0I
— Steve Moser (@SteveMoser) February 22, 2022
Quinn, a name with Irish origins, is a well-known gender-neutral name that has been used over the years for both boys and girls. It's not a coincidence that it happens to also be the name for the new Siri voice. (Apple doesn't display the voices' filenames to end users, though -- they're identified in the user interface as just Voice 1, Voice 2, Voice 3 and so on.)
You may end up hearing Quinn's voice and decide it sounds a bit more female or male to your ears. Though if you set your mind to hear it one way or the other, your interpretation may change to reflect your thinking.
What's more, the new voice comes across as gender-neutral without reverting to some sort of more robotic cadence. The voice still sounds human, that is with the same natural inflection and smooth transitions heard in the other Siri voices, both new and old.
Apple tells TechCrunch the new voice was recorded by a member of the LGBTQ+ community. It leverages Neutral Text to Speech (Neural TTS) technology to offer its natural sounds. All the English-speaking voices use Neural TTS as do the voices in six other languages (French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean). In total, Siri users can choose from 16 languages when setting up their device and choosing their preferred Siri voice.
When it comes to inclusion, Apple hasn't just focused on Siri's voice but also on what the digital assistant says. Over the past several years, Apple added Siri responses about Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, and introduced strong responses to abusive gender or sexuality-based utterances. Apple also rolled out more accessible voice features like Speak Screen, Dictation and Voice Control.
“We’re excited to introduce a new Siri voice for English speakers, giving users more options to choose a voice that speaks to them," an Apple spokesperson said, in response to our inquires about the new Siri voice. "Last year we introduced two new voices and removed the set voice default as part of Apple’s long-standing commitment to develop products and services that better reflect the diversity of the world we live in. Millions of people around the world rely on Siri every day to help get things done, so we work to make the experience feel as personalized as possible," they said.
The new voice option will roll out English speakers with iOS 15.4, which is expected to arrive sometime in March.