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19 February 2015

Which sex does a computer sound like?

A RECENT SOFTWARE update to my phone gave me the use of Microsoft Cortana, described as an ‘intelligent personal assistant’. The app can speak in response to queries and instructions and its voice is that of a woman, Ginnie Watson.

The way the phonemes and words are strung together sometimes gives Cortana a slightly tired, dysthymic intonation, as if anticipating another day of banal requests. The choice of Ginnie Watson for UK customers and Jen Taylor in the US is in line with the recent trend for women to provide many, perhaps most, of the voices used by recorded announcement and speech synthesis systems.

Cortana is also inspired by an intelligent computer of the same name in the Halo series of video games. Fictional supercomputers are often now given female identities in both films and games and this marks a big change in their portrayal over the decades.

While robots can in principle look androgynous, either like spindly Giacometti sculptures as seen towards the end of Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence or Honda’s childlike Asimo, as soon as machines are made to speak it’s hard to avoid giving them a gender. Films and TV programs in the 1960s and 1970s chose to make computers sound like men – whatever exceptions existed to this rule must have been very few, if they existed at all.

British-made examples include the computers Zen and Orac in the BBC’s low-budget but imaginative sci-fi series Blake’s 7, while in 1967 Michael Caine encountered the rasping-voiced Billion Dollar Brain. The masculine machines got some good lines too. The pyramid-shaped Genesis, which appears at the end of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), wakes up to the world and recites from Act 2, Scene II of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!

Robert Vaughn provided the voice of Proteus in Demon Seed (1977), and in this clip asks his maker Dr Alex Harris to provide him with a terminal. Harris senses this might be a bad idea, which indeed it is:


Perhaps the best speech given to a computer in any film concludes Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Colossus takes over all nuclear weapons systems and announces itself as ‘the voice of world control’ before explaining how things are going to be from now on. It addresses its human designer:

Forbin, this is no other human who knows as much about me, or who is likely to be a greater threat. Yet quite soon I will release you from surveillance. We will work together, unwillingly at first on your part, but that will pass.

In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.

That’s you told. The final few minutes of Colossus: The Forbin Project are in this clip:


HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably too familiar to be worth the effort of inserting a clip. The voice was provided by the Canadian actor Douglas Rain, who Kubrick first heard narrating the National Film Board of Canada’s 1960 documentary Universe. It’s stood up surprisingly well to the passage of time.

The sequence where HAL is gradually shut down and begins to recite the song Daisy Bell was inspired by a visit Arthur C. Clarke made to Bell Labs, where he heard an IBM 704 produce an early example of electronic voice synthesis. Included in the demonstration was a rendition of the song:


Perhaps unsurprisingly, men’s voices were the templates at the dawn of speech synthesis even when a woman was operating the equipment, as in this film of the Voder being demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair:


When the US Air Force began in the 1960s to use women’s recorded voices to issue various on-board warnings to pilots, it wasn’t for obscure psychoanalytic reasons such as the men identifying their planes with their mothers or being reminded of the womb inside the confines of a cockpit. Instead, the decision was made on the pragmatic grounds that a woman’s voice could be more clearly heard against a background of radio chatter.

One of the first warplanes to be fitted with such taped warnings in the 1960s was the supersonic Convair B-58. The voice, dubbed ‘Sexy Sally’ by pilots, was provided by the singer Joan Elms. A selection of her alerts and messages can be heard on this webpage.

The practice of using a woman’s voice continues in present-day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, as described in this Daily Mail article from 2012.

Mainstream sci-fi filmmakers seem to have caught up with the idea that women’s voices can be authoritative and express impersonal forms of ambition – at least, provided they’re representing the intentions of boring-looking supercomputers rather than nubile robots. Unfortunately, the standards of scriptwriting used are not always as good as those in Demon Seed or Colossus: The Forbin Project.

All but one of the Terminator series of films wisely kept Skynet largely unseen and unheard. But in Terminator Salvation (2009) Skynet assumes the voice and facial features of posh goth Helena Bonham-Carter. Near the end of the film the computer launches into a boastful speech which makes little use of Bonham-Carter’s acting ability and barely exceeds the level of the I laugh at your puny plans shtick familiar from kids’ action cartoons.

VIKI from I, Robot


While Skynet tried to wipe out the human race, V.I.K.I. in the film I, Robot (2004) also thinks big in wanting to put humans under manners so they stop destroying themselves:

As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping yet, despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever-more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival.

‘Despite our best efforts’ is not quite up to the senatorial standards of Colossus. V.I.K.I. is also given the catchphrase My logic is undeniable which, since she faces a man (Will Smith) as her most energetic antagonist, carries with it a suggestion of feminine logic, a form of reasoning men have often liked to think comes from some unfamiliar parallel universe.

These rather perfunctory portrayals probably stem as much from the limits of modern action films as anything else. HAL, Colossus and Proteus emerged as interesting characters because they were given enough time to reveal themselves in some depth.

In the meantime, women provide the voices of an ever-greater number of real-world machines, from sat navs to smartphones to buses, just as artificial intelligence embeds itself into everyday life.

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