Vice’s Creative Agency Built a Genderless AI Voice—And It Wants Big Tech to Adopt It

Q, which debuted at SXSW, aims to fight bias in smart assistants

Q is a composite of dozens of voices of people who identify as non-binary. Virtue
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In a world where most mainstream voice assistants are either female or male, should there be a third option?

To create a voice that’s more relatable for people who don’t identify as a binary gender, Virtue, the creative agency owned by Vice Media, created a genderless voice they hope will better represent the diversity of gender in technology.

Q, which debuted on Monday at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, is a composite of dozens of voices of people who identify as non-binary. To create the voice, Virtue and partners including Pride Copenhagen, linguists and technologists recorded the voices before creating a composite of all of them. The team then had 4,500 people in several European countries listen to the voice before identifying what sounded the most gender-neutral.

The goal, according to Ryan Sherman, senior creative at Virtue, is to get the biggest makers of voice assistants—namely Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon—to add a gender-neutral option to their platforms.

Sherman said these companies are pushing the boundaries of technology, but are doing so with outdated definitions of gender.

“They’ve got such a huge influence on the world because it’s in everyone’s pockets and in everyone’s homes,” he said. “So our goal is to give people more options within those assistants rather than to create a new one.”

To help show how variations of voice frequency changes the sound, Virtue and its partners created a website, which allows people to “meet” Q.

So what are the differences? A male voice frequency sits between 175 and 225 hertz, while a female voice is between 100 and 140 hertz. The frequency in the middle is considered gender neutral.

However, it’s not just the frequency that defines a voice’s gender within the mind of the listener. Specific sounds can, too. For example, a sharper pronunciation of words with the letter “S” can sound more female, as can an elongated vowel.

“For us, this represents a perfect marriage of the tech world,” Sherman said. “But also culture, which have always felt very separate.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.