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Digital Assistants Get Women's Names—Unless They're 'Lawyers'

Siri will get your coffee, Ross will be your lawyer.

Last month, law firm Baker & Hostetler announced that it would employ IBM's artificially intelligent lawyer, Ross, to help ease its tedious workload. In a statement, the firm's chief technology officer said, "we believe that emerging technologies like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning can help enhance the services we deliver to our clients."

Ross, a system built on the back of IBM's Watson, claims to be able to interpret questions lawyers ask it, and read "through the entire body of law and returns a cited answer and topical readings from legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly."

But the first thing I noticed about Ross wasn't how many legal documents it can search at once, or how accurate it claims to be. It was the name: Ross. It's a regular name for a human, except that it stands out when compared to other AI. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Ross: one of these things is not like the other. Siri, Cortana and Alexa are digital assistants—they help you find your coffee meeting, manage your calendar, play your music. Ross is a lawyer.

Lots and lots and lots has been written about the trend of giving assistant AIs female names and voices. At Gizmodo, Annalee Newitz asked, "So what is it that Siri and Cortana deliver that a male voice cannot? I think the answer is submission." Katherine Cross at The Establishment makes the case that having subservient AIs is fed by (and reinforces) the idea that real-life women are naturally more subservient.

"I think that probably reflects what some men think about women—that they're not fully human beings," Kathleen Richardson, author of the book An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, told Tanya Lewis at LiveScience.

Image: Shutterstock

People are accustomed to women occupying administrative roles, the roles that these AI are meant to augment or replace. And so they get women's names and voices. Yet some writers argue that naming assistants this way fortifies the idea that women who aren't algorithms exist to assist, not lead or make decisions.

IBM's other robot, the one Ross is based on, also has a traditionally masculine name: Watson. But Watson and Ross aren't personal assistants, they're "cognitive systems" and "digital legal experts." Watson competes on Jeopardy, is a chef and a doctor—all traditionally male dominated fields. Ross reads legal documents. These are very serious professionals. Can you imagine a lawyer named Alexa? Preposterous.

When I called Jimoh Ovbiagele, Ross's chief technology officer, to ask him about the name, he said he expected that some people would react the way I did. And he had a few explanations, some I found more convincing than others. The team (which, yes, consists of four men) had considered many names: Janice, Sarah, Alex. But they also felt like no matter what name they picked, they couldn't win.

"For us, regardless of what Ross's name is, whether it's called a robot or an AI legal research assistant or associate, at the end of the day we see all AIs as assistants to humans," he said. In their eyes, they had developed an assistant that wasn't all that different from Siri or Alexa. If they had given it a woman's name, the pendulum could have swung the opposite direction: "Oh great, another AI assistant with a woman's name." Ross is more like a paralegal than a full-blown lawyer, and 85 percent of paralegals are women, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ovbiagele said they played out all the possible scenarios, and "there was no winning," he said. "It seemed at the end of the day it was always a losing game."

So why not pick a gender neutral name, like Jody or Casey? Ovbiagele said they considered some gender neutral names, and that in their mind Ross is gender neutral. "Ross is also a common last name, so it's gender neutral in that way," he told me. Here's where I'm not sold—find me a person who encounters a robot named Ross and doesn't assume that Ross is that robot's first name.

Then again, maybe they secretly did their bot a favor. The life of a woman lawyer isn't quite as easy as her male counterparts. Studies show that women lawyers often work longer hours while still being paid less than men. One survey found that in New York City, a male partner at a large law firm with 13 to 24 years of experience bills for his services an average of $679 an hour. A woman at that same law firm makes on average 25 percent less, charging an average of $544.

A survey by the The Florida Bar found that 43 percent of women lawyers have experienced gender bias. In another study, researchers found that lawyers with names that could be either masculine or feminine (Kery, Jody) were much more likely to be become judges than women with more feminine names like Hazel, Ashley, and Laurie. In other words, Ross will probably have an easier time at any law firm.

Jokes aside, Ovbiagele wanted to be clear that they really did think about the name a lot, and that they really don't want to be associated with the problems that plague Silicon Valley more broadly.

"Issues of women and minorities is very very important to us," he said. And his team may be all male, but it's not all white, which for a technology team is still unusual. Ovbiagele himself is Nigerian and Filipino, and his team members are Portuguese and Brazilian.

"Silicon Valley has a major women and minorities problem, but we're not even from here, so I don't want to be associated with that," he said. He jokes that he thought about giving the AI a Nigerian name, but quipped, "You've seen my last name, I think people would probably misspell the website a lot."