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Siri, I love you: when you don't know that you are engaged to your virtual assistant


Siri, you are my soulmate”. If you are a TV series addicted, you surely remember The Big Bang Theory’s episode in which Raj falls in love with the his digital assistant. Maybe too extreme, but it’s not so far from the reality. I might call it “digital personification”, meaning we are starting to approach our digital assistants (Alexa, Siri, Cortana…) as if they were physical human beings.


AMAZON’S 2018 SPOT – HUMAN INTERACTION?

But is it impossible? Not according to the Amazon’s 2018 Super Bowl Spot, that pictures the hypothetical situation circumstance in which Alexa (the Amazon’s virtual assistant) looses its voice. And who is going to replace it? Let’s imagine you ask “Alexa, give me the recipe for pizza” and it’s chef Gordon Ramsey who answers your question; or actress Rebel Wilson, or even the amazing Antony Hopkins.


“Amazing”, isn’t it? But if we keep on behaving in this way pursuing this futuristic reality, we will start believing they are real. Indeed, although the ad proved to be so funny, its aim was pointing out we’re unconsciously laying the foundations of human interaction. The constant personification of these digital characters isn’t helping: they have names, genders, a female/male voice, personalities…so it’s difficult to avoid to install a relationship.


Why this? As Michael Horn, Managing Director of Data Science in Digital marketing agency Huge, explains: “When machines talk, people want to assume relationships. There is an innate human need to project emotions and attachments”. This statement was underlined by Google itself, who confirmed people are engaging with their voice-activated virtual assistants as if they were human, for example by addressing them with basic human courtesy expressions like “Thank you, please”… and when people engage in this behavior, they are not conscious of their actions: it’s just an automatism. But, as you can imagine, when we ask, for example, our dog to grab the ball to play, we don’t reward them with “please” or “thanks”, because it’s just an animal, not a person.


SIRI, ARE YOU MY BEST FRIEND?

Nowadays we are ever more attached to our mobiles, we don’t go anywhere without them. We fill them with our personal information, messages, photos…our entire life is encrypted in there. And, of course, our virtual assistant has unfettered access to them. It knows all of our secrets as if it was our best friend or, by exaggerating the concept, our partner.

It’s clear that virtual assistants can come in handy most of the time, as when we’re driving and we can’t leave the steering wheel. Or when we’re drowning in too many shopping bags, and we can’t digit our friend’s phone number to call them. So, virtual assistants are useful, if used in the right way. And maybe saying we are engaging real relationships is too hyperbolic. But we are not too far away from that picture. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve reached a point where a virtual assistant really knows who you are in terms of providing information and suggestions that a human could. (…) I don’t think we’re seeing that personal relationship with an assistant yet. We are starting to see seeds being laid” says Jeff Malmad, Managing Director and Head of media agency network Mindshare’s Life+ unit.

But what about a romantic relationship? According to some researchers, reaching this type of intimacy with an electronic persona is impossible, as romantic engagements require something that goes beyond the normal human interaction. Then, we can be sure we’re not on our way to build romantic affairs with digital assistants (except, of course, for pathological behaviour disorders). But, anyway, we have to consider the impact that this new type of “human interaction” (albeit not romantic) has on our lives, especially since we share most of our intimacy and private life with an electronic device.


GILLETTE AD: GO ASK DAD

Up until this point, everything sounds interesting, but what’s missing? The missing pieces are the simple actions of human interaction. Machines can give us all the information we need, they can answer our questions by surfing the net and, in some cases, they are able to interact with us as if they were real human beings. But they can’t kiss us, they can’t hug us, they can’t help us… they miss love. And it’s one of the most important traits that differentiates us from virtual assistants. Gillette got this by shooting a beautiful ad, reminding us that internet can help us just so far, but the advice coming from our beloved (in this case, dads) is something else entirely. In this ad, the boys ask their virtual assistant what to do in some situations (How can I understand I love a person? …) and the tips given by the virtual assistant are actually given by their fathers, who adamantly confess: “Technology is a barrier between my son and me”. Discover what happens:



In the end, as told before, technology is helpful only if used in the right way. We can’t think about replacing human interaction with a digital one. Between humans there are secrets, there is privacy, whereas with virtual assistants it’s not possible since our entire life is in our mobile and they can access it. As the guy in Gillette’s ad says, referring to the perfect tip received by the assistant: “It really knows me”. But the words were actually his father’s one. So, is a virtual assistant actually better than a human being?

Siri, please, publish this article.


Written by: Giulia Mattioli

Edited by: Alessia Urso

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