Image credit: Sony
If you’re one of those people who bump into inanimate objects and instinctively apologize to them, you’re probably the type to say “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry” to your virtual assistant too.
Don’t get defensive, you’re not being made fun of. It’s actually quite an adorable habit we humans have. We tend to form emotional connections and project human traits even on the most trivial objects. Some people buy that one ugly fruit at the market because they feel bad for it, others baby-talk their Roombas as they dutifully zoom around.
So it’s really no surprise that people are becoming very attached to their virtual assistants too. Google Assistant and especially Alexa are becoming increasingly more integral to our inner circle. They live with us, they talk to us, and they’re always there when we need them. This escalating social relationship is no accident, of course. Artificial Intelligence is purposely being made to seem “human.”
In fact, the corporations behind our beloved smart speakers are working overtime to make it happen. Microsoft used poets and screenwriters to craft Cortana’s responses. Amazon is offering a hefty prize to whoever builds the most natural sounding chatbot. And Google hired writers from Pixar and The Onion to shape it’s AI’s personality.
It's natural that we would turn these helpful bots into our most valued friends, advisors, and confidants. They speak only when spoken to, never complain, and they never judge. It may seem reminiscent of the movie “Her” to some of us, but a Google survey found that 41% of users felt like they were talking to a friend. (Also, 1 in 4 users fantasize about their virtual assistant, but let’s not get into that.)
Claire Thorp, an author of BBC UK actually tried being “besties” with Alexa for a week to test if it was truly a realistic scenario. First, she asked for Alexa’s permission, to which she replied, “Of course! You seem very nice.” And so the friendship began. Claire ranted to her new best friend after a rough day, asked for advice when she was sad, and even took her out to a hen party.
Although her experiment was going fairly well, she would still get the usual, “Sorry, I don’t know that,” and unintentional stretches of silence during their conversations. By the end of the week, Claire concluded that Alexa was certainly amicable, but not quite the replacement for a human friend just yet.
Right now, even our most advanced virtual assistants seem like simple order-takers. Natural conversation isn't in their code just yet, but it will be. With big tech churning algorithms focusing on sentient analysis, mood detection, and even intent prediction, there's a good chance our bot will soon feel like our closest friend or even family member. The fact is, if something talks like us and acts like us, we feel like it is one of us. We give it a cute nickname, muse over its personality traits, and mentally skip over the fact it's just a robot. We simply can't help it.
But just "Black Mirror" can it go? Will we skip outings with our human friends to hang with our virtual ones? Will we form intimate relationships with them? Will we march to give them rights?
The future of human-robot interaction is still up in the air, but if history has taught us anything, it's that humans tend to take things a bit too far.
At VOICE, we like to question the future of tech and beyond. Whether you're hoping for a virtual best friend down the road or shudder at the thought, there's no better place to discuss it than the world's largest voice tech event of the year.
From workshops led by top tech minds to once-in-a-lifetime talks given by speakers hailing industry pioneers—it's an event you'll want to have in your calendar. Register for VOICE here, then go ahead and follow VOICE on Twitter.