You've Got a Friend in Alexa

Is humanised language making the virtual assistants more supportive or more manipulative?

A woman with her face obscured by colourful digital code
Photo: Thisisengineering @ www.pexels.com

A yellow light glows on my Echo Dot.


“Alexa read my messages,” I say before an unnecessary surge of guilt compels me to add a weak "please.”


“You have one new notification.” This isn’t a surprise.

“From Amazon” she adds, almost an afterthought. I wonder if she might be trying to put distance between herself and the upcoming words of her ‘boss’. I sense the eye-rolling and the implied, but unsaid, “Don’t shoot the messenger”.


“One month ago, you bought Naan bread,” she reminds me. “How many stars would you give it out of five?”


"Three,” I answer, not missing a beat.


The speed of my rating is, in part, reflective of the strength of my Naan recall. Way before lockdown, Amazon had become my go-to shopping destination for 99% of my purchases.


From toothpaste to TVs, pillowcases to printer paper, socks to sex toys, I rarely think twice before hitting the Amazon shortcut button on my iPhone.


With packages arriving sometimes daily, a specific purchase rarely stands out. Unless it’s broken. Or, in a couple of cases, dead. Hence the automatic middle of the road, three stars.


The other reason behind my immediate answer is the pull of social normalcy. Alexa has asked me a simple enough question. She deserves a prompt response. If we are playing the game of conversational tennis, the ball is now in my court. I must deliver my return to avoid an uncomfortable silence or a call of 'Out!'


“Thanks,” she says, I assume with a grateful smile.


She tells me my review will help other customers make their purchase decisions. That makes me feel good about responding. It’s not dissimilar to the feeling I get when someone tells me they went to see a show after reading one of my theatre reviews. (More here, theatre fans.)


I feel a sense of altruism from helping a friend.

 

It’s not what you say, it’s how…and who.


Amazon also emails me with requests to review my purchases in the same way. I delete these emails as quickly as I answer Alexa.


Both channels are doing the same job. Both want to keep Amazon on my consideration list when I am not purchasing. Both use the same words.


Neither of them explicitly sells to me. They don’t suggest this is a good time to replenish my Naan stock. There is no mango chutney and poppadum themed follow-up.


So why do I engage with the message on one but treat the other as spam?


The email is logical and the ask straightforward. It pulls on data to ensure it is all factually correct and relevant. For Amazon, this represents sophisticated levels of personalisation. For me, it’s a hygiene factor that I only notice if incorrect. No amount of this personalisation makes the email feel personal.


I have no reason to reject the request. It just has little impact. It is out of my mind in an instant.


When Alexa asks, she is only narrating the email. But the narration is done in a tone I recognise. A voice I am used to hearing, and that sounds natural… in its own unique way. A voice that I have given permission to be in my home.


My conforming to conversational etiquette is at an emotional and instinctive level. I know Alexa uses prescribed terms and phrases. Ergo conversation – by definition, an exchange of ideas – is impossible. In the moment, the idea that I’m not conversing never enters my mind.


I delete the email because emails are sales messages and admin I ignore. I answer Alexa because she asked, and you don’t ignore a question from a…what?


A friend?

 

We all need a friend.


The idea of a virtual assistant as a friend gift-wraps a present to bullies. It seems a bit sad. A bit desperate. A bit house that smells of wee and needs a good clean.


Having an emotional connection with a digital voice conjures the macabre of Child’s Play. Or the amusement of Big Bang.


Nonetheless, the more their interactions are improving, the more relatable they become. The more we recognise speech patterns like our own, the more we assign other emotional human traits – albeit subconsciously.


With several studies showing alarming increases in loneliness, perhaps smart speakers are playing more of an emotional role in our lives than we would have ever imagined. Or care to admit.


Pre-COVID, nearly half the adult population of the UK said they regularly experienced feelings of loneliness. That number rises to nearly two-thirds in the US.


At the same time, 41% of smart speaker owners say talking to them feels more like speaking to a friend than technology. 60% of users said that their voice assistant helped them get through feelings of isolation during lockdown.


Could this mean that smart speakers are, unintentionally, fulfilling a need? Are they creating a social mission for corporations without them realising it?


Or was this the plan?


Is the intention really to manipulate basic human need by creating something with enough humanity to become embedded in our homes and our lives? To personify brand essence into something more tangible and more human?


Is the long-term vision to make us so comfortable with the sheep’s clothing we don’t notice the wolves of corporate consumerism hiding within?

 
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Becoming human.


Amid concerns about data being recorded in our homes – why everyone thinks what they have to say is important astounds me, but privacy is privacy I guess – there is an often-repeated party line. All make it clear that they harbour no ambition for Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant to ever behave, think, or believe they’re human.


They remind us that 2001: A Space Odyssey was only a work of fiction. They laugh at the idea that AI is a force of evil poised to take over the world.


That doesn’t stop them from spending billions on new technology to make them sound more human than ever.


Alexa Emotions is Amazon’s IP and enables Alexa to use different tones for different purposes, sounding more ‘grown-up’ when reading news and slower, more relaxed when suggesting music or a film.


Amazon also allows programmers to dial-up or dial down emotional layers of disappointment and excitement. If you swear at Alexa for giving you a recipe for bread when you asked her to turn the lights down in bed, she will chastise you. You will know she is disappointed rather than angry.


And it hurts more.


Duplex for the Web is the technology used by the “Google Gang” to replicate language structure itself. It echoes the imperfections we take for granted that make speech patterns sound human.


Though Google Assistant is the least human-sounding name of the main assistants, it does have a human back-story. Growing up in Colorado, with research librarian and physics professor parents, she used to be the personal assistant to a “popular late-night-TV satirical pundit”.


She won Jeopardy: Kids Edition and likes kayaking.


More pub quiz mate, than Mastermind champion.


Speech synthesis and continual learning are at the heart of the voice strategy for Siri. Apple says this cycle of self-improvement gives their assistant a more natural cadence, putting stress on the right words.


Technically, Siri does sound better. She also sounds the most technical. The language may be correct and may be precise, but humans are rarely either of these things consistently.

 

The future reality, the new normal?

No matter how much people proselytise what the future holds, the only thing certain is uncertainty.


Only last month, Microsoft removed their soon-to-be-retired Cortana from Harman Kardon's Invoke speaker (I mean, really, is there anyone apart from the family Gates who knew this even existed?). And Siri clearly got a bit lost in amongst the other messages attached to the original HomePod.


It may be a wobble more than a derailment. Even without the shopping proposition sorted, Jeff Bezos has said he wants Alexa to be in every household. Amazon recently launched the fourth generation of the Echo, a spherical speaker that looks a bit like a squashed HomePod.


The HomePod mini – and its price point – may help Apple focus more on Siri as the Hub to the Apple world. There's already chatter about interaction with Apple TV that isn't just a remote control with a voice. She also seems more comfortable in her bungalow-sized home.


But perhaps their fate rests more in the less expected uses that people are finding for them.


Not to go as far as buying a friend exactly, but as something that goes alongside the radio and the TV. A voice that can be a comfort and offer contact with the world outside of our homes. The value they provide will be the value we prescribe.


Making our lives easier is often talked about as a benefit of smart technology. An offshoot to that is making our lives happier. The technology will continue to develop to play, to connect, to sell. But it is humanity that will see voice assistants continue to be the strangers we welcome into our homes.


How the companies who make them will use that to their advantage, remains to be seen.


 
1 Extra Word writes copy and develops content that humanises businesses to thank, help, reward — and generally flirt with — their customers, prospects and employees.
Whatever your brief, if you think people should enjoy your emails, socialise your social posts and have fun with your FAQs, visit 1ExtraWord.com.
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