Will Consumers Develop Romantic Relationships With Their Virtual Assistants?

Your soulmate might actually be a robot

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Amazon’s 2018 Super Bowl spot featured virtual assistant Alexa experiencing a very human problem of having to call in sick to work. While a humorous concept, it’s a fictional scenario based on a very real, growing trend: Virtual assistants now have names, genders and personalities to make them more relatable and to encourage consumer interaction.

This is, in part, why consumers are inviting assistants into their lives in increasing numbers. Amazon said millions of Echo devices sold during the 2017 holiday season, while Google sold tens of millions of Google devices for the home in 2017. (The companies declined to provide more specific figures.)

Forrester, however, estimates Amazon sold 22 million Echo devices in 2017, and that the smart home market will grow to 244 million devices by 2022, with smart speakers accounting for 68 percent of the total.

“When machines talk, people want to assume relationships,” said Michael Horn, managing director of data science at digital marketing agency Huge. “There is an innate human need to project emotions and attachments.”

According to Google, voice assistants offer “a new, more human relationship with technology.” Additionally, per Google data, 41 percent of consumers who own a voice-activated speaker say it feels like talking to a friend or another person.

“People are engaging with their voice-activated speakers as if they were human,” Google said. “They’re saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and even ‘sorry.’ People perceive the devices as more than just an electronic toy; they’re more akin to another person or a friend.”

As consumers share details of their lives with these new friends, the relationship will grow closer—especially as they become more integrated into our phones, said Gemma Craven, head of social and mobile at ad agency network McCann. “We already have very intimate relationships with [our phones], as we carry them around with us every waking moment,” she said. “It’s only natural that our relationship with them will become even deeper.”

Jason Snyder, CTO of brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide, pointed to voice skills as an example of how voice assistants are already acting as third parties in human relationships. You could, for example, ask Alexa to order flowers for Valentine’s Day.

“It’s very much a part of people’s lives and relationships in a way we haven’t really seen before,” he added.

There’s also the example of Replika, the “AI friend that’s always there for you.” This chatbot learns about users by asking questions and then builds profiles in order to have more natural conversations, according to Jeff Malmad, managing director and head of media agency network Mindshare’s Life+ unit, which is focused on emerging technology.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve reached a point right now where a virtual assistant really knows who you are in terms of providing information and suggestions that a human could,” Malmad said. “I don’t think the Turing Test has happened from a bot perspective. Replika is helping to get closer, but I don’t think we’re seeing that personal relationship with an assistant yet. We’re starting to see seeds being laid.”

As assistants start responding in ways that meet users’ specific needs, it isn’t a stretch to suggest the possibility—or even the inevitability—of romantic relationships between consumers and their voice assistants, according to Snyder.

Horn, on the other hand, was more skeptical; he sees sexual roles being imposed upon devices, but relationships are still the stuff of science fiction—although there is more immediate potential in companionship.

“I think we should take a step back and think of human behavior as a function of emotion. Inanimate objects can combat loneliness, like companion robots in nursing homes, or [help]…victims of PTSD,” Horn said. “In the mass consumer market, I haven’t seen companion cases in the same way, but it’s largely inevitable.”

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