Designing a chatbot: male, female or gender neutral?

Queenie Wong
The Mercury News

San Jose, Calif. — Picture a virtual assistant that helps find directions, schedules appointments or plays music, and the soothing yet robotic sound of a female voice likely comes to mind.

From Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa, a majority of the world’s most popular virtual assistants have female personas.

But that’s starting to change as a growing number of consumers — and companies — turn to digital assistants. Some developers are going against the grain, creating chatbots and messaging apps that no longer conform to one gender and challenging a tradition of female digital assistants that some say display submissive personalities.

Making virtual assistants female by default can be bad for business and perpetuate stereotypes, these chatbot developers say, so they’re offering more options to consumers.

“A bot can be male or female, but I think it doesn’t need to be submissive ...,” said Dror Oren, co-founder and vice president of product at Kasisto. “It can be a woman and have a smart, authoritative approach. A lot of bots are women, but they show behavior which is not necessarily what I would like to see when I think about my daughters.”

The New York startup, which spun off from a Silicon Valley research company called SRI International that helped create Siri, developed a banking chatbot called MyKAI that launched in 2016 to manage money, track expenses or even answer banking questions.

Available on Facebook Messenger, Slack and text message, the bot can answer questions such as, “How much did I spend on groceries last week,” “How much money do I have in my checking account,” or “What is compound interest?”

But ask MyKAI if it’s male or female, and it responds, “As a bot, I’m not a human. But I learn. That’s machine learning.”

When Kasisto designed the bot, Oren said it hired a female writer to help create a bot that was gender-neutral.

“We wanted (its gender) to be relatively vague, and for us, it serves the purpose of focusing on the activity and function and not the personality of the bot,” he said. “This bot is helping you to manage money or set your budget, but it’s not about hanging out with you and being your flirty virtual buddy.”

The name KAI stands for Kasisto AI, but the company also liked it because the name Kai has different meanings in different cultures, including victory, fire, willow tree or lovable.

Like diversity on movie screens or in media, some experts and developers say that chatbots can also reinforce stereotypes or biases about people who work in particular professions.

“Technology has the power to reshape what the new normal is,” said Stuart Geiger, an ethnographer and post-doctoral scholar at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Historically, secretaries and administrative assistants have been women, and women still comprise about 94 percent of people in those jobs, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“When an engineer or product manager goes to automate a task, they sort of have an idea in their minds of humans who were performing it before,” Geiger said.

Siri, perhaps the best known intelligent assistant, is a case in point. When Siri debuted as an iPhone app in 2010, the personal assistant only responded via text. In October 2011, after Apple purchased the startup that created Siri, the virtual assistant was introduced as a feature on the iPhone 4S and had a female voice in the United States. Apple didn’t offer users the option to give Siri a male voice until two years later. Those first impressions stuck; to this day, many people still use female pronouns to refer to Siri.

Though if you ask Siri if it’s a man or woman, she replies, “I am genderless. Like cacti. And certain species of fish.”