The news about Amazon’s Alexa bursting out in spontaneous laughter would have been funnier if it hadn’t cast a spotlight on what’s wrong with the current approach to chatbots and virtual assistants. Amazon researchers programmed Alexa to deliver a rolling “ha ha ha” when users said, “Alexa, can you laugh?” The device began misinterpreting audio, resulting in random, fairly terrifying cackling. Amazon quickly corrected this by changing both the command and response to behave more clearly and predictably: “Alexa, can you laugh?” now results in, “Sure, I can laugh. Tee hee!” This is a good, simple fix, but what can we learn from this event?
Makers of chatbots and virtual assistants are trying too hard to make them seem human. It’s not just Alexa. Ask Siri “What is zero divided by zero?” and she’ll send you to a burn ward, or ask Google Home a series of standard questions and you’ll receive some weird answers. Sure, the cheekiness is fun, and a certain level of humanness makes them more accessible, but it is also what’s preventing this technology from reaching its fullest potential.
In reality, chatbots and virtual assistants are just another type of computer interface. Just like other interfaces, they are tools expected to process information and complete the tasks users assign to them. As with every other interface, the user experience is paramount. A number of studies have shown that assigning certain human traits (like voice tones or the ability to tell jokes) helps users relate to and trust computers. It makes sense why companies would make chatbots and virtual assistants humanlike. But trying to make something accessible and trying to make something human are two very different things.
Alexa’s laughing jag has been described as, among other things, “creepy,” “evil,” “bone-chilling” and “freaky.” That’s not particularly accessible. Humans expect computers to behave in predictable ways. When they don’t, it’s alienating and frightening. Once we are led to believe technology has human qualities, we expect it to act human. Just like when a person behaves incongruously with social norms, it’s alarming when an anthropomorphized machine acts bizarrely.
The core issue here is not how researchers created Alexa’s “laugh” command — rather, it’s why they created it at all. What value does it add?
The same applies to chatbots. The more companies try to mask them as real people, the less effective they are. How many times have you started chatting with “Katie” on some site, only to discover she isn’t a real person? She answers your initial questions with no problems, but as the conversation deepens, her responses do not deliver the information you need or even answer the questions you’re asking. Frustrating and infuriating, right?
To prevent that negative outcome, chatbots should be upfront about being chatbots, rather than pretending to be humans. Frankness that interactions are with a chatbot save a lot of friction down the road when the bot reaches its limit in addressing questions or concerns.
It all comes down to managing expectations. People appreciate when tasks are performed quickly and more efficiently, and in most cases, will welcome technology that advances that experience. We are comfortable interacting with computers and are used to their limitations. Why attempt to trick people and create false expectations?
We all grew up on futuristic stories with machines that have personalities. They can tell jokes, provide comfort, are brave and curious, and evoke emotional responses. Star Wars’ R2-D2, Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S., and Knight Rider’s KITT (to name just a few) are all sympathetic and beloved. Though they might act human, they clearly are not. What really makes them inspiring is their advanced intelligence and capabilities, and their promise that someday, we too will benefit from the assistance this technology offers to advance our own humanity. Their humanness is a bonus.
Chatbots and virtual assistants promise to change — in fact, they already are changing — the way we interact with technology. Both consumer and business adoption is increasing dramatically as the technology’s ability to quickly, easily, and intelligently answer questions and perform functions expands. With continuous advances in AI, both in its conversational capacity and in the increasing complexity of the tasks it can perform, the challenge we face is to not overly humanize these devices too soon. We should perfect their intelligence and usefulness first.
The companies that succeed in leveraging the strength of this technology and interface, without falling into the humanity trap, will not only triumph but will drive us forward toward a new era of progress and possibility.
Sagi Eliyahu is the cofounder and CEO of Tonkean, a next-generation business dashboard that connects the dots between the tools organizations use every day and the insight only teams can provide.