Falling for the machine

Voice assistants are becoming increasingly popular and will be mainstream within five years. Humans are already getting emotionally attached to them.

In the six months since it’s release, Amazon has sold a staggering 11 million Echoes in the UK. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Amazon are all major players in a competitive and fast evolving game.

A study conducted by advertising agency JWT and marketing company Mindshare surveyed more than 1,000 UK smartphone owners aged 18 and over, as well as 100 Amazon Echo owners. Their findings are bound to have an impact on how companies design their voice technologies for human interaction.

The numbers speak for themselves:

  • 20% of mobile searches on Android are now done by voice,
  • 52% of smartphone users believe it would be easier if technology could speak back,
  • 55% of people use voice assistants for convenience,
  • 45% said they use their voice assistant because it was fun,
  • 72% of regular voice assistant users think brands should have unique voices and personalities,
  • 37% of voice technology users say they like their voice assistant so much, they wished it was a real person,
  • 25% admit to having had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistant.

There’s a reason why tech companies tend to give them female voices.

Researchers at Stanford University found that both men and women preferred female voices because they were found to be warmer and more understanding – except when the voice assistant was teaching them about computers – in that case, both groups expressed a preference for a male voice. But female voices were better at giving advice about relationships.

Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant all have female voices, although Apple has added the option of a male voice for Siri’s British English version.

To successfully enable voice assistants to integrate into our lives, companies are striving to understand how the technology can simplify everyday tasks by adding value and removing friction from the experience. Thoughtful and helpful interactions that genuinely enhance the experience will almost certainly result in greater engagement and deeper relationships between humans and machine.

It is possible that people have ingrained expectations and perhaps even inbuilt prejudices about male and female roles. Doubtless the PC brigade will have something to say about that, but as devices become more sophisticated, it is likely that one day soon, they’ll be helping our children with their homework. In that case, different voices could be useful.

Neuroscience experiments have found that the emotional response to voice assistants is still considerably lower than for face-to-face human interactions or touch/text interface. This is almost certainly due to a temporary lack of more complex personalities, but that will come, and probably sooner than we think. We are fast approaching the time when computers will be able to programme themselves. Within the next 20 years, it will be impossible to spot whether you’re having a conversation with another human, or the latest voice assistant.

There are other advantages to having a voice assistant. For a start you can always turn it off when you need peace and quiet, it won’t answer back, and it wall always tell the truth.

People’s emotional response to Amazon’s Alexa grew during the course of the experiments as people became more comfortable using it. Familiarity is bound to eventually lead to trust, but this indicates a potential for closer relationships. Maybe future devices will incorporate a holographic picture of your choice. In the next few years, robots will become more realistic and more versatile. Prototype sex robots are already available though expensive, but mass production will make them more affordable. What sort of relationships people might form with androids that are hard to distinguish from real humans is for the time being, a matter of speculation.

At the moment, voice assistant use is focussed on private spaces and mainly in the home, so perhaps it’s understandable that so many users have sexual fantasies about their virtual assistants. The kind of future depicted in films such as Blade Runner, AI and Ex Machina may not be that far away.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.