In Praise of Fraudulent Politeness: A Call To Virtual Assistant Developers



I have a Samsung phone (one of the one’s that doesn’t randomly burst into flames…yet).  Tonight, I plugged in my phone to recharge and it told me goodnight and asked if I wanted to listen to different sounds to drift off to sleep.  Then it told me to sleep well and asked me if I wanted to put my phone on silent to sleep better (of course not. The first time you do that, you just know your boss is going to call you with an ultimatum of your job or calling him back in 2 minutes.).  I can tell  you, it’s been awhile since I remember a person other than my wife being that generally pleasant to me for no reason.

And I think that’s what’s missing from virtual assistants these days.  Virtual assistants can learn your patterns, give you updates at your request, make suggestions you didn’t even request, and still….somehow they all seem a bit too cold right now.  It’s kind of like they shove things in your face and, though you’re grateful, you’re also a bit offput by the whole thing.

In the field of robotics, for forever, we were determined to make robots feel and see how they are most like us, with human voices and human faces etc. The breakthrough came when we changed the conversation to ask the question, “How do robots make US feel?”  Suddenly, we could focus on developing machines that elicit emotions in us, which is really what we’re going for.  And suddenly, the shape and humanoid makeup of the robot isn’t as important, as an R2-D2 looking garbage can inspire in us great emotion, with a sense of profound loss brought on when the machine’s time is up.

The same thing should be asked about virtual assistants.  Not just  “what can they do for us?” or “how can they make our lives better?”, but the bigger question is “how do they make us feel?”

How does your virtual assistant make you feel in the world?  Capable?  Lonely? Enlivened?  Confused?  Romantic even?  These are fundamental questions and they should be at the forefront of developing virtual assistant technologies, perhaps even at the expense of efficient functionality sometimes.

It’s the little things that add up over time when it comes to making us feel better.  If the assistant were to randomly check in and very warmly say, “Hey.  How ‘s it going?” or “How are you doing?” for no other reason than it’s just checkin in, there’s something very endearing about that.  Even though we know it’s a machine and even though we know it has no emotions and doesn’t really care, that normal warm question might be one of the few kindnesses we’ve gotten all day a world that only interacts with us to get the labor or money out of us.

Virtual assistants are going to become our personal secretaries and de facto spouses before long, if they haven’t already.  They should pepper us with these little kindnesses throughout the day, intermingling warmth and concern in ways that still allows it to learn our patterns.  Then, the help and suggestions it offers are not just a computer talking, but part of a narrative of genuine concern.  I’m not doing this because I’m an awesome piece of technology and look  at all my bells and whistles; I’m doing this because I’m concerned about your well being in the world.  I want you to be healthy and look your best and get to work on time and not have to put up with annoyances you don’t have to.  I want to help you laugh and enjoy life, and I want to be there for you when nobody else will talk to you.

Fraudulent as this concern may be, it’s still something severely lacking in modern computer interaction, but luckily, it’s one that can quickly be addressed in small ways.  I think back to Clippy, Microsoft’s Word paperclip avatar that made helpful suggestions for your document. But Clippy is universally hated because a) he’s ridiculously wrong a lot and b) he was always so matter of fact about things.  There’s a place where humans are always matter of fact about things, it’s called the workplace.  And there are no great movements extolling the virtues of making your homelife more like the workplace.  Because that would be awful.

How are you?  You feeling okay?  You mentioned Steve: is this the Steve you were talking about the other day?  Do you get along with your parents?  Why not?  Hmmm.

It’s a fine line to walk, certainly, but we have a choice to make: either our virtual assistants can become our friends and confidants or they can become like that annoying waiter that wants to refill your glass too much.  Both may be necessary, but only one is really desirable and welcome.


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