In the previous article I expanded on the importance of minimising the interference of hardware or software in the connection between user and end-goal. However, this is only part of the story: some technology companies are moving in a fundamentally different direction. Given that our sense of self-soothing is built best when socially interacting within a shared cultural group, some companies are moving towards developing virtual personalities into their hardware. The point? To simulate interaction with individuals we can feel an affinity with and, in doing so, stimulate our feelings of self-soothing, contentment and, as such, brand loyalty.
Conversations with hardware
Do you talk to your phone? Regularly converse with the all in one printers at work? It’s pretty natural behaviour – and tech companies are trying to encourage it.
Moving to a different brand of phone involves more than just learning a new skill-set: hardware takes on its own personality, and in changing we must adapt to a new ‘virtual person’. Part of this is fuelled by the purposeful anachronisms built in to modern devices. Still more is fuelled by a well-crafted approach to designing and manufacturing them. But companies also take particular approaches that give a sense of ‘system-wide’ – or ‘ecosystem-wide’ – unity to their virtual personalities.
Take, for example, Siri on newer Apple devices. S/he (depending on region) responds in a characteristically personable manner – and Apple admits to having spent many hours carefully crafting a personality that would tread the line between servile and expertise. As such, Siri’s responses are in keeping with the entire iPhone, iOS and even Apple ecosystems. Her wit is akin to that shared by Apple’s marketing department. The kinds of responses she gives to more philosophical questions are in keeping with Apple’s guiding principles. What’s the point of all this? Because, each time you use Siri, you engage in a shared cultural experience with someone your body recognises as a genuine individual. Result? Endorphins. Particularly as Siri is polite, complimentary but self-confident – exactly the kind of individual we crave attention from.
Other technology companies are moving towards speech-recognition and synthesis software, but few currently have the ‘personality’ of Siri. And that’s quite a big issue. Given the psychological reaction we have to virtual personalities, I would predict that, over the next few years, competitors will develop their own characteristic variants.
Researchers in AI have spoken at length about the ‘uncanny valley’ – a point past which computer-generated personalities will be indistinguishable from ‘natural’ ones. Some suggest that this is a point that humans will innately reject further AI development, but many are accepting that humans will likely welcome it warmly. Many science fiction writers have authored stories in which technology-kind is indistinguishable from humankind, and this seems to be a systemic trend in the complexity of technology evolution. So, in addition to the anachronising of common hardware and software tools – allowing us to accept them in to our consciousness – I believe that we will see an increasing trend in those ‘multi-function’ elements to become more ‘human’. In doing so, companies will not only enable swifter and more efficient features – they will build strong brand loyalty, based on direct interaction with a ‘representative avatar’ of the company ethos itself.