It’s not entirely surprising to me that the virtual assistants we have access to on our phones and computers find themselves subject to sexualisation. It boggles the mind, sure, but it doesn’t surprise it. Many of these AIs such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have been developed with female voices and a friendly obliging manner in an effort to have them appear human and trustworthy to their users. As a human woman all it takes for me to receive an inappropriate comment is to visibly exist, online or off, so I can hardly imagine the things that are said to female personalities programmed to be submissive and accommodating.
In fact, Microsoft’s Deborah Harrison told CNN that when the company launched their own assistant Cortana in 2014, a lot of the questions she was asked related to her sex life. Seriously, it turns out you just have to be coded to sound female for people to feel entitled to you sexually.
According to Harrison, though, Cortana is not going to accept this kind of behaviour. As one of the writers behind Cortana’s dialogue in the US, Harrison is responsible for the jokes and responses users hear when they talk to the assistant. And that includes the responses they hear when they decide to be inappropriate. At the ReWork Virtual Assistant Summit in San Francisco Harrison said “If you say things that are particularly assholeish to Cortana, she will get mad. That’s not the kind of interaction we want to encourage.”
The Microsoft team apparently worked with real assistants to formulate the best responses to harassment to ensure that Cortana “didn’t feel subservient in any way… or that we would set up a dynamic we didn’t want to perpetuate socially.”
If you ask “Will you date me?” she’ll respond “I know you know this, but I’m saying it anyway: I’m in a phone.” If you tell her to kiss you, she’ll reply “Hold up, chief. Let’s not go there.” And if you ask her what she’s wearing? Well:
Kudos to Microsoft for this one. It’s not always immediately apparent but the way female characters are presented to us in games, films, and even operating systems has an important effect on how women are viewed and treated in real life; media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The responses of a virtual assistant might seem like a minor thing, but at least it tells would-be harassers that if their phone isn’t going to put up with the bullshit they think is “funny banter” a real woman certainly won’t. Although to be honest, part of me would quite like Cortana’s response to sexual remarks to be a simple redirect to the online dictionary definition of the word “creep.” Quick and to the point.