In Silicon Valley the hottest thing today is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Established tech giants and a multitude of startups are busy creating virtual assistants that are designed to interact with us naturally, with the hope being that one day soon they’ll be intinguisable from dealing with a real person.
And so we have x.ai’s Amy, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. All are keen to arrange our meetings, play our favourite songs, answer our questions, and set our alarms so we don’t sleep in.
A couple of months ago Facebook launched a platform for it’s hugely popular chat app Messenger to help brands use bots to interact with customers, which they announced by saying: “Whether you’re building apps or experiences to share weather updates, confirm reservations at a hotel, or send receipts from a recent purchase, bots make it possible for you to be more personal, more proactive, and more streamlined in the way that you interact with people.”
What often gets overlooked in reports about breakthroughs in AI technology is that for a bot to work interactions need to feel seamless, and to achieve this they need personality. A report by the Washington Post explains how this is achieved:
Until recently, Robyn Ewing was a writer in Hollywood, developing TV scripts and pitching pilots to film studios.
Now she’s applying her creative talents toward building the personality of a different type of character — a virtual assistant, animated by artificial intelligence, that interacts with sick patients. […]
Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.
As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.
Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’ ” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”