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Book review: Voice assistants 'need a feminist reboot'

In The Smart Wife, authors Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy identify and offer solutions to the gender stereotypes embedded in the products we use everyday.

From left: Amazon Echo Dot (2020), Nest Mini, HomePod Mini.
Chris Monroe/CNET

The smart home isn't a new concept. We've been dreaming up ways to automate our lives for generations, whether in early consumer products like the slow-cooker, through shows like The Jetsons and beyond. While we're closer than ever to having our very own Rosie the Robot whizzing around our homes, has anyone ever stopped to ask if we should -- or if there's a better way forward?

In The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot, Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy address the ways in which old gendered "ideals" of the home and what it means to be a woman and a wife have filtered into today's smart home technologies. 

Both are based in Melbourne, Australia. Strengers is an associate professor of digital technology and society in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University. Kennedy is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. 

Not only is the always-listening, always-available, compliant and female-voiced (by default, in most cases) voice assistant highly problematic for women, it's bad for everyone. But Strengers and Kennedy don't just highlight their concerns, they also present a series of solutions that, if implemented, could help give our technology a much-needed "feminist reboot."

A 'smart wife'

Strengers and Kennedy are not referring to all smart home technology, but a subset of "AI, internet-connect, or robotic-things" infused with "an enduring archetype in the collective psyche -- one who can take on all forms of domestic work within the home." 

Certain devices and device categories -- like domestic bots (robot vacuums), caregiver bots (Pepper), voice assistants (Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple's Siri) and companion bots (Harmony RealDoll) -- promote both subtle and overt images of women, in particular, wives, as commodities and property.

"Her role includes that of a caregiver, housekeeper, homemaker, emotional laborer, provider of sexual services and procreator of legitimate offspring. These roles are entrenched in thousands of years of patriarchy," Strengers and Kennedy note

While Rosie the Robot only exists in the world of The Jetsons, she has inspired many of the domestic bots available today -- and even appeared in an ad for LG SmartThinQ appliances. Robots like Amazon's rumored wheeled Vesta draw from Rosie. iRobot CEO Colin Angle even said the Roomba robot vacuum was directly inspired by the robot housekeeper. In a 2013 tweet, iRobot said Rosie was the most common name for a Roomba. This perpetuates an outdated concept of the division of labor in a home.

Other analyses in The Smart Wife paint an even bleaker picture, when you move to voice assistants and companion bots, in particular. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri default to a woman's voice who is always there to answer questions or perform a task, such as turning on the lights or adjusting the thermostat. And these voice assistants currently have limited responses to (and no way to remove themselves from) sexual harassment or other inappropriate situations. For the authors, the same concerns apply to sex dolls like Harmony, who have no ability to give or deny consent. 

Amazon and Apple didn't respond to a request for comment. Google declined to comment. 


A RealDoll.

John Kim/CNET

Even though we're "just" talking about voice assistants and other technologies here, Strengers and Kennedy said their treatment matters. 

"Yes, we know smart wives aren't real women, yet the social boundaries between smart and human women are blurry. The ways that we treat virtual women reflect and reinforce how we treat "real" women, and vice versa." 

Pepper, the caregiver bot, is something of an outlier in the smart wife category because the humanoid robot has a "gender-neutral" design. Still, this is problematic, Strengers and Kennedy said, because robots like Pepper "are still there to perform stereotypical feminized labor," and are still commonly ascribed "female traits."

A smarter home

In the final chapter, titled The Smart Wife Reboot, Strengers and Kennedy offer up nine ways to make smart wives better for everyone. It's an overwhelming list and they admit as much, covering everything from the need to diversify hiring and change how these products are marketed and talked about -- to some more complex asks, such as building devices capable of speaking up for themselves when threatened. 

Their final, "core" request calls for ethical guidelines to regulate the design, behavior of and treatment toward smart wives. 

It's a fine list with some interesting insights, but one of their points stands out to me: Hire more diverse people. If this happened, at least some of these other concerns would be addressed in the early stages of design and development -- rather than after the fact, the authors explain. 

"Put simply, concerns such as sexual assault, rape, abortion and domestic violence haven't been in the front of the minds of most (male) AI programmers." A whopping 80.7 percent of all computer programmers in the United States are male, according to a 2019 report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

This also brings up a broader problem with smart wives: "...the reality of daily housework is still curiously absent from or overly simplified in most technology marketing and designs." These products just aren't that helpful yet, especially for women. 

Men are more likely to bring new technologies home and are therefore largely responsible for setting up and maintaining them, Strengers and Kennedy found through their own research interviewing Australian households for the book. This gives men more "digital housework," but the devices don't yet significantly ease the burden of "physical housework," like cooking, cleaning and laundry. I've tested a lot of app-enabled washers and dryers: Yes, they're getting smarter, but they aren't really making it faster or much easier to do laundry, yet.

Strengers and Kennedy are hopeful that a positive change can happen, but they're also eager to start implementing it now.

"While gendering technology has already existed, technologies that have humanlike personalities, and the ability to speak back and respond to our needs, [are] unique to the present. if we don't act swiftly and boldly, we may set ourselves up for a feminized future that takes society back to the "good old days" when women's place was to act in the service of all others."