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.”
Pete Meyers, marketing scientist at marketing company Moz, agreed that robot romance remains fictional even if voice assistants can yield deeper bonds—in part because voice assistants are disembodied.
“We do tend to anthropomorphize based on appearance. Look at the Paro Therapeutic Robot—despite its limited interactions, it seems to help people because it looks like a cuddly seal,” Meyers said. “To be fair, the robotics involved aren’t trivial, but those limited interactions wouldn’t have the impact they do without that appearance [or] body, in my opinion.”
This, in turn, raises the question of what happens when assistants take on a human form, as well as what rights said human-like entities would—or should—have.
“There are very strong precursors to AI getting human rights—it’s going to happen sooner rather than later,” Snyder said. “In Saudi Arabia, there’s citizenship for AI. Look at great apes, which have had rights in Spain, and dolphins in India. … These are precursors to non-human things getting rights.”
As a result, Snyder said we will ultimately have to redefine what relationships mean, much like gender has been redefined in recent years.
“The speed at which changes happen is remarkable,” Snyder said. “Brand marketers need to acknowledge that intimacy at scale with technology is a real thing. And the word that needs to be stressed there is intimacy. It will redefine the [consumer] relationship with brands and how brands insinuate themselves inside conversations.”
In addition, marketers must also understand that machines will increasingly make purchase decisions on behalf of consumers. This could be a plus, as a conversation with a device is a much more intimate form of engagement than text, which, in turn, should help brands build more intimate relationships with consumers, too, said Craven.
“This will be achieved as more engagement leads to more opportunities to capture data about the person on the other end of the interaction,” she added. “And more data means an ever more optimized customer experience.”
However, it also means brands must market to Alexa and other voice assistants.
“You really have to focus marketing and sales efforts on persuading the machines,” Snyder said. “They’re part of this dynamic—as people fall in love with them and spend their time with them and have intimate conversations with them, they trust them. It doesn’t matter, frankly, whether [your brand is] bathroom tissue or lip balm or beer or a computer or a car … How people consider your brand and want access to you could be anywhere, and you have to be there, because [if you’re not,] someone else will be.”