Why we’re obsessed with female language assistants.

An expert in speech recognition and speech technologies responds to Ysabelle Cheungs “Galatea.”

When Joseph Faber invented the euphonia in the mid-19th centuryth Century analog speech synthesizers, people were not impressed. They found Faber’s invention to be an odd device with little to no purpose. (It eventually found a home in PT Barnum’s circus). Attempting to create a machine that could mimic human speech, Faber became physically attached to his invention, manipulating its bellows, gears, and hardware to produce human-like utterances – from brief speeches to ghostly renditions of ” God Save the Queen” – with flat affect. One version of the machine was designed with a female face on the bellows, hair in curls, and fair, smooth-looking skin. The idea of ​​a woman serving as a manifestation of a man’s technological accomplishment is nothing new. From PAT in the 1999 Disney TV Movie Connected Home to the synthesizers of the Channel 4 series people (2015-2018) Conversational Feminine AI are embedded in many of our future visions. While Faber’s machine may not have been successful, it is a reminder of mankind’s fascination with creating something similar to ourselves and pushing technology to accomplish something greater than we originally imagined.

in the 21stSt At the end of the 20th century, artificial intelligence avatars like BINA48 and Sophia are answering questions and interacting with a questioning and curious audience. These mediations often perpetuate limited constructs of femininity as subservient and pleasing to the eyes and ears. Like Faber’s Euphonia, they are figures with softer, delicate features, designed to serve or entertain a human audience or individual. Though the imitation may be crude — nowhere near the sophistication of the humanoids in Michael Crichton’s HBO adaptation western world– these machines-as-women remind us of the hidden scripts underlying technological advances throughout history, from Siri to the deep past.

In Greek mythology, Galatea is a story about a sculptor who falls in love with his creation: an ivory statue of a female figure. The artist’s subconscious desires come to life in the beautiful statue and the goddess Aphrodite grants his wish and brings his creation to life. Based on this myth, Ysabelle Cheung’s short story of the same name weaves together themes of mimicry, cloning and voice with subtlety and precision. Her story provokes us to think about what Women could demand from female AI characters originally programmed to please, seduce and serve a male coded user. In Cheung’s Galatea, the female characters, human and AI alike, model irreducible nuances in their utterances and language, despite being (digitally) programmed by their creators and by (analogue) social forces, gendered expectations and norms.

The story is told in the second person, with the reader’s experience filtered through the narrator’s perspective, who encounters Galatea, an AI-powered bot, and her male owner. Over the course of an evening, the narrator begins to perceive echoes between herself and this programmed female character. The way the narrator interprets and shapes Galatea vacillates: we first imagine Galatea functioning more or less as a robotic sex worker, then as a household appliance, a sort of “smart home” hub – and later as a disturbing replica the ex-wife of the owner’s musical prodigy.

The story begins with the narrator at the home of Galatea’s owner, a man with whom she had several dates. The narrator points out the finer details of the house: a mock Noguchi table, a pair of convincing flameless candles, and the decor’s neat symmetry. The setting evokes sleek, modern urban homes full of marble and hardwood, all sharp corners and edges demonstrating man’s ability to fully control the material circumstances of our lives, regardless of the chaotic whims of geography, wildlife, and the planet weather . Specifying our needs and desires by what we have can bring satisfaction, relief, or comfort.

Upon discovering and interacting with Galatea, the narrator’s identity begins to blur; Galatea is dressed like the narrator, with a similar hairstyle, a particular instantiation of Chinese femininity. Like the owner’s ex-wife, who looks similar and works in the narrator’s office, Galatea plays the piano – the male owner assumes our narrator plays too, which she both admits as true and denies as a stereotype. This moment provides a glimpse of how a female AI might have been programmed and coded to conform to local gender norms. Whether Galatea performs from an extensive catalog of classical piano pieces or sings songs by Taiwanese musician Teresa Teng, its creators had in mind a certain resemblance that they knew would appeal to a specific group of customers: a stature, a demeanor, and a voice that you can count on and rely on. The collision and blurring between narrator, AI and ex-wife reveals these female characters as subtle permutations of each other, all programmed and tweaked to meet the needs of a partner, an owner, a (male) companion.

not how The women of Stepford, a 1972 novel (and a 1975 and 2004 film) depicting a dystopian future for women subjugated in the US suburbs and replaced by complacent bots, Galatea invites us to reflect whether consciousness can be transformed from human to machine and whether it could result from the limited programming of “companion bots”. Can we imagine a Galatea developing imagination, a mind of her own? Does the liberating twist at the end of Cheung’s story signify a transcendence—or transgression—of the cultural expectations of Asian women that haunt the story’s triad of female characters?

For the AI ​​character in Galatea, the inside of the house, a place of domesticity and refuge, is not a sanctuary but a place of ongoing domestic work — from piano performances and pleasant small talk to managing its owner’s connected devices while lying silently on standby . We’re already witnessing intelligent technology being programmed to play the voice of our departed loved ones, echoing Cheung’s story of the owner’s AI companion bearing such an uncanny resemblance to his ex-wife. With a gentle touch or the intonation of a wake word, our feminine-coded Siris and Alexa and Cortana capture the attention—a quasi-phalanx of helpful, cheerful AI women who are always ready for our commands.

As a researcher focused on speech recognition and assistive technologies, I keep coming back to the role that language plays in Cheung’s story. The dexterity of dialogue makes our titular AI appear compellingly human and our presumably human narrator somewhat machinic. The characters’ voices are the vehicle through which the organic and the artificial intertwine and merge. Galatea may move and speak with a grace that borders on humanity, but her answers to the narrator’s questions about how she spends her time alone and her monologue about the pianist Clara Schumann are what really pulls the narrator and the reader into it mislead into believing that she has attained a human (or superhuman?) level of sentience.

Through reading the story multiple times, I keep reminding myself of a moment in Louisa Hall’s 2015 novel Speak. In one vignette, a man, Karl Dettman, writes a letter to his wife about their conversations with an AI system, MARY. He writes: “Since you discovered my talking computer, save your conversation for them. Have you thought about how this might affect me? Coming home to such a ringing silence? It’s like coming home with your bags packed. I can feel you leaving me.” The husband is desperate to understand what MARY has given his wife that he has not. In Cheung’s story, Galatea similarly addresses the female narrator in an ambiguous manner. Cheung leaves us to interpret for ourselves both a feminine-coded AI that seems to have outdone her programming, and a narrator whose bond with Galatea stems from growing affection or a recognition of a vital resemblance. These twin questions — whether the AI ​​can transcend its programmed limits and why the narrator is so transfixed by it — hover over an ending that serves as a metaphor for breaking free from our attachments, fixations, and gender constructed.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society.


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