What would happen if Alexa lost her voice? This was the question Amazon posed to viewers in its 2018 Superbowl commercial. The tech giant’s solution: Calling in some very recognisable voices — Gordon Ramsay, Cardi B, Anthony Hopkins, and Rebel Wilson — to pick up the slack. But, much to the chagrin of “Bartier Cardi” fans everywhere, the “real” Alexa’s vocal cords remain perfectly healthy, and no A-listers are slated to join the Echo roster.
What was just a joke at Amazon is not a joke at Google. Today, at the company's annual developers' conference, Google announced that John Legend's voice will be coming to the Google Assistant later this year.
No, not just when you say, Hey Google, play "All Of Me." Legend will actually be the assistant. He'll set your timer, list off recipe ingredients, and tell you pun-ny jokes, all in that crooning, butter-soft voice you wish would sing you to sleep every night.
Legend's voice is one of seven new voices coming to the Google Assistant. The other six voices — both male and female — aren't famous, but each is intended to sound more human-like, with natural pacing of words and pitch. (These are skills Apple has worked on with Siri, too.) WaveNet technology is behind the more human-sounding speech, and it's helping bring Legend's voice to anyone with the Google Assistant. Instead of requiring the Grammy-winning singer to spend hours reading from scripts in a recording room — as voice artists needed to do in the past — WaveNet is able to use a short recording to then recombine words, in Legend's voice, to form other sentences. The technology lets Google "create new voices in just a few weeks."
Besides the inevitable fun of hearing an A-list artist wake you up in the morning, there's a larger significance to Legend's voice coming to a Google Home near you. While most smart assistants have an option for a male voice, the default is almost always a "she," as are the names (in addition to Alexa, Siri and Cortana are typically referred to as "she"). The reasoning for the prevalence of female voice assistants is often attributed to studies showing people respond better to female voices. But, as critics have pointed out, there is an inherent risk associated with issuing commands to a woman. Siri, Alexa, and Cortana may not be real, but how we speak to them can have implications for how we communicate with women in real life. Earlier this year, Amazon's Alexa team spoke about the importance of creating an empowered Alexa — one who will not respond to derogatory words — in the #MeToo era.
The fact that the first celebrity voice to take on the Assistant role is male, represents an important break with tradition. And while, sure, it may just be an advertising play (Legend also appears in Google Assistant commercials with Chrissy Teigen), it's one that speaks volumes. Now, when's Gordon Ramsay coming to Alexa?