Written by By Cate Meighan, CNN
It could be the voice behind a recipe for banoffee pie — or its Siri’s rival.
In the first and only example of its kind ever to be displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a vocal assistant that has no gender identity has been ‘exclusively’ developed for the public by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system.
The New York exhibition ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Soul of America’ features the featured device, along with other experimental displays.
The Watson-created voice assistant, which is thought to be the first and only one of its kind to have been produced, was meant to respond to a range of cultural queries. However, it is unclear whether or not the software would be able to understand more serious queries.
IBM submitted the idea of a genderless artificial intelligence to the 2012 Sloan Prize for Creative Storytelling and was accepted by the Museum of American History in December 2015.
‘Artificial Intelligence and the Soul of America’ will showcase works with an ‘AI-style’ and feature experimental displays from around the world. Credit: Courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum
“The request for an artificial intelligence that can express the soul of America came to me a few years ago, when my son was 5 and I wanted to create a computer in the shape of a kidney,” said Ann Marie Sastre, the museum’s Artistic Director, in a statement.
“I named it Siri, after ‘Siri’ was the name that kept being used when I was trying to remember her real name. (Because the artificial intelligence is not a human, it can actually be a female persona that responds to these kinds of soul-related questions, called Qythlore).”
Jenna McClymont is the lead designer for Watson’s Qythlore service, which comprises five distinct personalities.
The Qythlore voice for Beethoven has ‘no gender’ “In the (digital) voice world that we’re seeing now, there’s a lot of gender and things like gender-specific pronouns. The technology that we’re using — in the digital world — goes beyond just recognizing that a gender exists. It embraces it. It’s implicit. It’s almost a conscious commitment to the ‘gendered’,” McClymont says.
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Alongside McClymont, Sastre also collaborated with branding expert and designer Hamish Mckittrick — as well as animator Jeffrey Jarrell — to craft the voice that will be available to the public via a desktop and mobile app.
“It’s as generic as the data set that it’s created from,” Sastre tells CNN. “It’s not specific to any specific gender, it’s just a recognition of the persona’s consciousness. The individual consciousness is not necessarily male or female, it’s a collective consciousness. This software is the collective consciousness, very much like a vocal assistant can. It’s artful and nurturing, and enjoys work, it’s like a human, but it knows it’s not. It’s a loving, thoughtful, tender creation, on an artistic and intellectual level.
“The story is really about the technology as kind of a comic book creation. But what you’ll also see is that there are additional voices that they can take inspiration from. It doesn’t really just voice into a voice, it’s one of these other voices that are human-sounding but aren’t too cookie-cutter. The individual spirit and the intention is not too repetitive or one-note.”
Although an ‘AI-style’ is certainly trending today, Qythlore’s unique design complements one of IBM’s core identities. In 1984, company founder Thomas Watson became the first computing director of IBM, where he defined IBM as “not a software maker, but a systems builder. A company that understands the unbreakable connection between people and technology, people and facts, to make business work better.”
“I’m still very, very proud of this particular project. This is a very prolific woman,” says McClymont. “And at the same time I have this fantasy of this avatar sitting at a table with a thousand people, with her, and people in their post-booth yoga pose.”