Viewed in isolation, the launch of Facebook’s new messenger assistant ‘M’ seems fairly innocuous; in an industry where debates about everything from the ethical implications of developing AI, to the possibility of commercial space travel are de rigueur, a messenger bot simply does not have the same thrill.
Nonetheless, by creating a gender-neutral bot, Facebook is going firmly against the grain – and other brands should take note. Debates around gender equality show no sign of abating and companies as diverse as the BBC and Google have been in the firing line. Simultaneously, society’s concept of the importance of gender is shifting dramatically, with 82% of Generation Z agreeing that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to. Against this background, Facebook has shown both commercial savvy and social sensitivity by launching a gender neutral bot.
The decision is all the more significant when you consider that the majority of assistants we interact with – both bots and AI – have an implied gender, usually female. In some cases, such as Mattel’s AI "nanny" Aristotle, the female voice was conceivably chosen with the audience in mind; the argument could be put forward that young children need the bot to be approachable and the female voice is more comforting.
The thoughtless gendering of other bots, however, raises more pertinent questions, and the female voices of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana seem to have been selected by their parent brands for no other reason than that assistant roles have historically been seen as female. As awareness of gender equality and representation issues grow, brands should be conscious not to fall into similar traps, potentially alienating large portions of their customer base along the way.
Instead, they should take advantage of the opportunities increasingly sophisticated technology brings to create a customer journey that is richer than ever and will build lasting brand loyalty with today’s diverse and demanding consumers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean shying away from taking a binary approach to gender and assigning your bot or AI as either male or female. The key to making such a decision, however, is to be thoughtful and articulate; ask yourself why you are making that decision, if it is free from bias, and whether it rings true for your brand identity.
Aside from Mattel’s Aristotle, another bot which uses a female voice for a functional reason is smoke alarm bot Nest Protect. Research from the University of Dundee found that children respond best to human voices when warned of danger, such as their mother’s voice. Nest Protect, therefore, made a conscious gendering decision which not only increased the assistant’s effectiveness but also married perfectly with the brand’s aim of protecting a family from fire.
Some brands, however, may still find the choice between male and female too restrictive – and that’s okay. With popular culture increasingly embracing non-binary values, the brand itself doesn’t have to adhere to a specific gender identity and, indeed, some shouldn’t. Capital One’s Eno is both a voiceless and genderless interface, telling users simply that it is "binary" when asked the question if it is a boy or a girl.
But why stop there? Brands should also consider whether interfaces need to be given human attributes at all. As AI technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, the design decisions made today will shape the interactions brands have with consumers long into the future. Evidence has shown that technology doesn’t have to exhibit human characteristics for us to bond meaningfully with it; in Japan, Sony AIBO dogs were so popular that some owners held "funerals" for their robots after the line was discontinued.
In fact, by moving away from human identities altogether, brands could avoid courting uninvited criticism over the choices about gender they make. A more neutral animal identity has the potential to build as much brand loyalty as a human AI, but with fewer reputational pitfalls.
Whichever decision a brand comes to, however, they must ensure it is clear and considered, taking into account what they want their brand to say to consumers (soon, literally) across every aspect of the consumer journey. What makes Facebook’s decision so important, is that it shows brands are finally realising they need to make conscious decisions about gender – whatever that decision may be.
In the near future, new digital brand interfaces won’t even have to limit themselves to one gender or even ‘species’ across each touchpoint. Employing a more agile and articulate approach will allow brands to meet the increasingly complex needs of today’s diverse consumers by delivering a richer brand experience and customer journey.
Peter Knapp is the global executive creative director at branding consultancy Landor
This article is part of Campaign's special report on voice technology. Look out for the main feature which will be published as part of our first monthly issue.