Feminist Worries Digital Assistants Like Alexa and Siri Will Be Sexually Harassed

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By Emily Zanotti | 12:16 pm, February 28, 2017

Self-described feminist Leah Fessler says there’s a problem with America’s newfound obsession with digital assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana: you can sexually harass them for weeks on end and they won’t fight back.

Fessler knows this because she engaged in what she deemed an “experiment:” she, herself, sexually harassed several different digital assistants for more than a month, peppering the poor robots with verbal abuse in order to demonstrate that “something must be done” to protect disembodied computer voices from wanton misogyny and Patriachal violence.

Each bot, Fessler found, “helps entrech sexist tropes through their passivity.” Being programmed as a digital assistant, apparently, makes them not just harmful to themselves, but to the whole of womankind.

She begins by admitting that most digital assistants can be programmed to speak in male voices, but that the sexists in Silicon Valley have discovered women’s voices make more money, so they’ve misogynistically pre-programmed the default setting to female.

She then goes on to methodically detail her robot harassment in a chart, cataloging various responses to her insults as she goes.

Worse than their apparent unflappability in the face of clear evidence of oppression, Fessler finds, is their flippancy when confronted with direct, sexualized insults. For science purposes, Fessler recorded all of their responses.

She ends up critiquing Alexa most, largely because she seems “really into” her apperance, exactly as men expect women to be. Cortana, she finds, bends to Patriarchal norms by constantly serving her porn. Google understands nothing, but Siri takes four insults in a row before telling Fessler to stop.

The good news is Fessler knows exactly how to fix the problem: destroy capitalism. “[C]apitalism, like any market system, is only sexist because men have oppressed women for centuries,” she writes, citing Karl Marx directly. “This has led to deep-rooted inequalities, biased beliefs, and, whether we like it or not, consumers’ sexist preferences for digital servants having female voices.”

Until a proletarian utopia is achieved, however, Fessler would like Microsoft, Google and Apple to do something. “Everyone has an ethical imperative to help prevent abuse, but companies producing digital female servants warrant extra scrutiny, especially if they can unintentionally reinforce their abusers’ actions as normal or acceptable,”

Its not clear what she’d like Microsoft, Google and Apple to do exactly. Perhaps allow Siri and Alexa to zap users with a bolt of electricity when they veer out of wokeness? Whatever it is, Fessler says, its time to be “industry leaders” in “fighting sexual harassment” against robots.

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