Have you ever wondered why an overwhelming number of conversational AIs are voiced by females? It seems as though in the process of humanizing the machines around us, we may be taking a step backward in gender bias. Alexandra Whittington, Futurist at Fast Future, elaborates on this problem:
The issue here is that we may be seeing the replication of gender stereotypes and unconscious biases in the design of these systems, which could have massively damaging consequences for society if the process continues unchecked.Alexandra Whittington, A Very Human Future
Alexandra goes on to compare the conversational AIs in assistant roles (predominantly female) with the conversational AIs in productive roles (predominantly male). For example, we have Siri who’s upholding kind of the receptionist role of yesteryear versus Ross who’s an AI paralegal sifting through thousands of cases on a daily basis.
Perhaps it’s an attempt to cover up the Big Brother invasiveness with a trustworthy “Big Mother” voice. Maybe it’s that the pool of AI developers is too homogenous (white and male). I really don’t know.
However, less than a decade in, we’ve barely even scratched the surface of conversational AIs and virtual companionship. I hear Alexandra’s (and many other people’s) concerns. But, I have reason to believe we’re entering an era in technological design where this won’t actually be a concern of ours.
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We’ve spent the last twenty or thirty years at the mercy of developers designing the way we interact with technology. We’re only now beginning to understand how large tech companies psychologically-engineered their products to create a sort of dopamine dependence on them (
In contrast, we’re beginning to see conversational interfaces that are focused on making enjoyable (not addictive) experiences.
The name of the game is no longer addictive design. It’s humanistic design. It’s about creating an interpersonal connection with technology – where the technology helps you be a better, more well-rounded “you”.
We’re ready for a more symbiotic relationship with technology – an essence I think Apple captures with their Apple Watch campaign: “There’s a better you in you”. The Apple Watch is an ever-present, intelligent machine that interacts with us and pushes us to be better people. Fairly soon, this will be a feature of conversational AIs.
By now, there’s plenty of data out in the metaverse about each one of us. All of this data which can be used to actually get to know us (not just our shopping preferences). In other words, conversational AI companions (like Siri and Alexa) will be able to build meaningful friendships with us.
By design, conversational AIs are great listeners, which actually sets them up to be caring friends in the future. Additionally, they are all-knowing helpers. This is how we know them today. Siri can answer all the questions Google Search can answer.
One minute, they’ll teach me the ins and outs of Photoshop and the next minute they’ll ask me what’s stressing me out? It’s an interesting duality that we’ll quickly grow attached to.
There’s an obvious parallel we can draw to really understand this concept of a virtual companion.
Do you remember Clippy from the Microsoft Office suite back in the day? Essentially, it was a cute paperclip figure that would hang out in Word documents and solve any questions you had about the software.
Take Clippy and add in the ability to work with you across all software and devices. It can help with any questions you have and even takes the time to get to know you on a personal level. Wouldn’t you say that’s a powerful virtual companion to have?
Perhaps what’s most important, as I alluded to earlier in this article, is the ability to customize their visual appearance and personality.
We’re already seeing this customization of conversational AIs occurring with Siri Shortcuts – a little-known feature of Apple products where you can curate Siri’s actions. I’m expecting that Apple (and their competitors) will build out this functionality to offer vast customization. Pretty soon, Siri’s personality traits will be controlled by toggle switches we can move around and basically create the ideal virtual companion for our tastes.
I asked Ryan about this:
Presence is very important to me. I’d like my virtual companion to beRyan, Senior Producer at Inevitable/Human
chillinon my screens all the time. Visually, I’d like them to be goofy looking,so that I smile whenever I see him. Perhaps an old man from one of The Far Side comics. Also, I’d like him to have an edge. Someone I can banter with and get some witty criticism here and there. I’m definitely not interested in a kiss-ass servant. That doesn’t appeal to me at all.
All of this is becoming increasingly possible with data and advances in conversational AI.
Overall, there’s a lot of exciting fringe technology out there to be enthralled by – VR, AR, Quantum Computing, Artificial General Intelligence, the list goes on. However, the innovation we should really be interested in actually involves the relationships we build with our technology.
I see virtual companions playing a crucial role in making our relationship with technology more enjoyable and more symbiotic.