A.I. assistants can give you the news, order you a pizza, and tell you a joke. All you have to do is trust them—completely.
This is already beginning to happen—and it isn’t just Siri or Alexa. As of April, all five of the world’s dominant technology companies are vying to be the Google of the conversation age. Whoever wins has a chance to get to know us more intimately than any company or machine has before—and to exert even more influence over our choices, purchases, and reading habits than they already do.
So say goodbye to Web browsers and mobile home screens as our default portals to the Internet. And say hello to the new wave of intelligent assistants, virtual agents, and software bots that are rising to take their place.
No, really, say “hello” to them. Apple’s Siri, Google’s mobile search app, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Facebook’s M, to name just five of the most notable, are diverse in their approaches, capabilities, and underlying technologies. But, with one exception, they’ve all been programmed to respond to basic salutations in one way or another, and it’s a good way to start to get a sense of their respective mannerisms. You might even be tempted to say they have different personalities.
You might notice that most of these virtual assistants have female-sounding names and voices. Facebook M doesn’t have a voice—it’s text-only—but it was initially rumored to be called Moneypenny, a reference to a secretary from the James Bond franchise. And even Google’s voice is female by default. This is, to some extent, a reflection of societal sexism. But these bots’ apparent embrace of gender also highlights their aspiration to be anthropomorphized: They want—that is, the engineers that build them want—to interact with you like a person, not a machine. It seems to be working: Already people tend to refer to Siri, Alexa, and Cortana as “she,” not “it.”
That Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies have effectively humanized their software in this way, with little fanfare and scant resistance, represents a coup of sorts. Once we perceive a virtual assistant as human, or at least humanoid, it becomes an entity with which we can establish humanlike relations. We can like it, banter with it, even turn to it for companionship when we’re lonely. When it errs or betrays us, we can get angry with it and, ultimately, forgive it. What’s most important, from the perspective of the companies behind this technology, is that we trust it.