Why Siri’s New Non-Gendered Voice Is a Big Deal

No more he said, she said

Key Takeaways

  • The iOS 15.4 beta adds a new non-gendered American voice to Siri.
  • The voice was recorded by a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Diverse voices help us identify with our devices.
Singer or speaker on the stage in red light

Viktor Talashuk / Unsplash

Siri's latest voice is neither he/him nor she/her. Or is it both?

In iOS 15.4, Siri gets a new gender-neutral voice, which—like that blue/gray dress—sounds different depending on your point of view. This is the latest installment in Apple's plan to remove gender bias from its voice assistant, making it more inclusive and removing preconceptions about general roles in service roles. 

"Removing gender from computer interactions is the next step for inclusivity, especially regarding something that should be universally acceptable to everyone," Samuel Dwyer, CEO of the HR sexual harassment training platform EasyLlama, told Lifewire via email. "In 2022, we recognize far more gender expressions than two, and Siri users should be able to choose a voice that speaks to them, literally and figuratively."

Progressive Personalization

In April 2021, Apple changed Siri’s settings so that it no longer defaulted to a female voice for new users. It also renamed the voices, giving them numbers instead of binary gender labels. The idea, presumably, was to let people choose a voice-based on what they liked the sound of, rather than other criteria. 

The next stage of that change will come with the next release of iOS. The gender-neutral voice—available in US English only—has been added to make Siri more inclusive. Speaking to Axios’ Ina Fried, Apple said the voice was recorded by a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ pride colors shown in water with a ripple effect

Jordan McDonald / Unsplash

This is good news for a few reasons. The obvious one is that non-binary Siri users have more choices to better find a voice they can identify with. And everyone benefits, too, because we're no longer forced to make our iPhones or iPads male or female. Non-binary is just as appropriate for machines as it is for humans.

You can hear a clip of the new voice here. Like Siri's other voices, it's clearly a recorded human voice. But there are other options. Q is a "genderless voice assistant" voice that takes human voice recordings and alters them to sound gender neutral, including an alteration of pitch into a neutral zone. The goal of Q, say the makers, is to break the assumption that the "female voice is generally preferred for assistive tasks and male voice for commanding tasks."

Perception

It's not just computers that are moving away from the binary-gendered default. In 2021, German airline Lufthansa announced it would stop greeting passengers as "ladies and gentlemen" instead using something like "dear guests" or just not addressing people at all, using "good morning (or evening)" instead. 

That's good news, but computer voices are a special case. More specifically, we like to perceive them as human, and like us. Siri's English language voices come in many accents matching different localities, and in 2021 Apple added voices from Black voice actors. This latest voice is, in some ways, just another personalization option. And with devices that are so personal to us, that's an important feature. 

... Siri users should be able to choose a voice that speaks to them...

"This is a positive step forward as it lets individuals choose the voice they prefer without the default bias coming into play. The two new voices also bring some much-needed variety to the voices of Siri, offering more diversity in speech sound and pattern to a user picking a voice that speaks to them," holistic health writer Meera Watts told Lifewire via email. 

Expectations

It's also an easy way to bring important gender-neutral options to a platform. While the fuss about which bathrooms transgender people use is likely to keep burning as long as some bigots stoke the fire, nobody cares about computer voices. Or rather, we do care when a voice is added that we can better identify with, but who complains about those extra options?

Perhaps that's down to the fact that it's a computer, so we'd be happy with a Daft Punk robot voice. But a more optimistic view would be that our phones are introducing a more balanced view of the world to us, and in the case of Siri, they're doing it by default. And while this is great, it's only a start.

"We've seen significant strides toward inclusivity, especially regarding employers and their DEI initiatives," says Dwyer. "But with 280+ anti-trans legislative bills that may pass in 2022, it's clear that there still isn't enough support for this vital community."

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