Siri and Alexa say black lives matter, but tech still slammed for lack of diversity
Ask Alexa or Siri or Google whether "black lives matter," and the voice assistants of some of the most powerful companies in the world are quick to answer in the affirmative.
"Black lives matter. I believe in racial equality," says Amazon's Alexa. "I stand in solidarity with the black community in the fight against system racism and injustice."
Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant answer in similar ways, now trained to address that question and others raised by recent events. Chief executives at tech companies ranging from Uber to Facebook have posted public notes to express support for the black lives movement, while companies such as Amazon and Twitter have plastered their platforms with banners or changed their profile pictures in support. Apple and Google moved to quickly update their maps to reflect changes to newly named streets.
Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
The companies have joined other corporations across the world that have spoken out in support of the movement, which has gained considerable ground in the past two weeks amid ongoing protests after George Floyd's death as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
But many inside Silicon Valley have criticized the support from tech companies as just lip service and hypocritical given industry's long history of employing a mostly white male workforce and selling products to law enforcement. Amazon in particular faced backlash for its work with police departments, including through its Ring home camera system, which more than 1,350 law enforcement agencies work with to request access.
That extends to social media giant Facebook, where employees have questioned the company's response to a post by President Donald Trump that used the phrase, "when the looting begins, the shooting begins."
Tech giants have struggled for years to convince the public that they are committed to diversifying their own massive workforces, but the demographics have slowly changed in the past decade. Google's workforce is 54.4% white and 3.3% black, according to its 2019 diversity report. Apple's U.S. workforce is 50% white and 9% black. Amazon's report shows a more diverse makeup - its U.S. workforce is 34.7% white and 26.5 percent black - though its statistics include low-paying warehouse jobs as well as more lucrative white-collar positions.
The companies point to small gains in diverse hires each year, but critics say they have not done enough. Pressure is mounting for the corporate world as a whole to hire, retain and promote a diverse range of employees especially because most large companies still have executive teams and boards that are predominantly white and male.
And the consequences of a lack of diversity in tech is myriad, from concerns about bias in artificial intelligence to facial recognition technology that doesn't work on darker skin.
It still makes a difference that companies are coming out and supporting the cause, said Evelyn Carter, a director of training and people development at Paradigm IQ, a firm that advises companies on how to build inclusive workforces.
"We are continuing to collectively nudge what the bare minimum looks like," she said. "Lip service, saying Black Lives Matter, is still meaningful change."
In the past few weeks, executives at companies that Carter is working with have come back to her to apologize for resisting some of her suggestions. They want to take action now, she said.
"There is a forceful shift now where they're saying, 'we're on board,' " she said.
Amazon and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Google spokesperson Katherine Williams said the company "must continue our work to expand the talent pool externally, and improve our culture internally, if we want to create equitable outcomes and inclusion for everyone." She also pointed to a public memo from chief executive Sundar Pichai, published June 3.
"The events of the past few weeks reflect deep structural challenges," Pichai wrote. "We'll work closely with our Black community to develop initiatives and product ideas that support long-term solutions-and we'll keep you updated."
Bezos has publicly posted to his Instagram account letters he's received from customers who have criticized the company's decision to advertise for black lives matter, saying he's willing to lose customers who disagree with that statement.
CNBC first reported on the voice assistant's updated responses to the questions.
The public displays are also reflected elsewhere. Google Maps updated its map to show the newly renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza adjacent to Lafayette Square outside the White House. Apple went further, adjusting the satellite view of its map to show the street with the giant yellow-painted "Black Lives Matter" words.
That seems to have been so urgent that Apple did not wait to update its satellite map images as a whole. Rather, it appears Apple patched a new photo of the plaza into its existing maps, as pointed out by app researcher Jane Manchun Wong.
As for the voice assistants, Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa points users to blacklivesmatter.com when asked about the movement. Siri also says the phrase "all lives matter," which has been used as a rallying cry against the Black Lives Matter cause, does not "represent the same concerns."
Williams said the company updated Google Assistant's responses last week.
Amazon and Google's voice technologies also back up this assertion.
Asked, "Do all lives matter?" Google responds: "Saying 'black lives matter' doesn't mean that all lives don't. It means black lives are at risk in ways others are not."The Washington Post