Falling in Love with Your Virtual Agent (Maybe)

Intelligent Virtual AgentThe New Yorker ran an article last month called “Can Humans Fall in Love with Bots?” It’s a rather sensational title intended, I suppose, to grab attention (and yes, I latched onto the hook for this post!). The New Yorker piece, though, covers the topic of virtual agents, chatter bots, and the universe of conversational virtual assistants broadly, not just from an attachment standpoint.

The article was written by Betsy Morals, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker on technology topics. The anchor for her post is the Spike Jonze movie “Her,” which I wrote about previously. Morals viewed a pre-release version of the film and she uses this scifi fantasy story as a jumping off point to explore the current state of virtual agent technology as it exists in the real world today.

Morals references discussions she’s had with Fred Brown, CEO of virtual agent technology company Next IT. Next IT created as virtual assistant called Jenn for Alaska Airlines. It turns out that Jenn attracts users who engage her in conversations that go beyond just asking about airline tickets and flight status. Brown told Morals that data shows people often converse with Jenn for extended periods, especially late at night. They probe her with questions about her likes and dislikes. Some users even seem to be trying to flirt with her, despite her obvious virtual nature.

Morals also spoke with Nova Spivack, who sits on the board of Next IT and who was involved in the research work that eventually led to the creation of Siri. Spivack seems to express the opinion that today’s virtual agents are realistic and believable enough that people might be lured into developing an emotional attachment to them. But Morals is skeptical. Her own interactions with virtual agents haven’t been as impressive. She references Sgt. Star, used by the U.S. Army to answer questions from potential recruits. While the Sergeant can answer most of her questions, she suggests that he clearly doesn’t display a full understanding of the intent of a person’s questions, especially when you try to drill down deeper into a conversation or ask questions about the Sergeant’s own emotional response to certain aspects of Army life. (As a side note, I wrote about the technology behind Sgt. Star in an earlier post).

According to Morals, it turns out that Spike Jonze was inspired to create the film “Her” based on conversations he had with the AIML-based ALICE bot years ago. ALICE’s ability to understand context and adjust her conversation to the desires and habits of dialog partners is extremely limited. But Moral’s discussions with Nuance’s Gary Clayton lead her to be more optimistic about the future capabilities of virtual agents. Clayton believes that as virtual agents have more access to your personal data, they will be better equipped to proactively assist you. He gives the example of a virtual assistant that knows you’re driving on the highway and recognizes that you’re suddenly exceeding the speed limit and asks you if you’re ok. (It may also know that you didn’t sleep well the night before or that you’ve just left from a stressful meeting).

As our virtual agents become more capable and indispensable, it’s not hard to imagine a day when we’ll develop emotional attachments to them. Morals touches on the question: will our virtual agents be able to love us back? But that’s fodder for an even more esoteric discussion. Read Morals’ article for yourself. Just be warned that if you’re planning on going to see “Her,” the article gives away the ending.

Digital Personal Assistants Hit the Big Screen!

Her filmThere’s a new film coming out that’s bound to stir up discussion again on personal digital assistants and the future of the human to computer interface. When Apple introduced Siri a few years back, there was a huge amount of buzz about virtual agent technologies and, well, talking apps. A new film by Spike Jonze titled Her takes the Siri concept further by spinning the tale of a lonely man, Theodore, who falls in love with his personal digital assistant.  Based on the Her trailer, the story revolves around an intelligent “operating system” called Samantha, a software program configured especially for Theodore based on his responses to various personal questions (are you social or antisocial?, how would you describe your relationship with your mother?, etc.).

Samantha is apparently so perfectly suited to Theodore’s personality and preferences that he quickly becomes strongly attached to ‘her.’  As someone who hasn’t been very lucky in building lasting relationships with other humans, Theodore is giddy to have a loyal companion to interact with. In fact, Samantha seems totally focused on him, his feelings, hopes, and desires. Watching the trailer, you almost get the sense that Samantha is a high tech version of Weizenbaum’s psychotherapist ELIZA chatbot.

What will the next 5 to 20 years bring us in terms of virtual agents that we interact with on a personal level? Will we all have our own, custom-fit personal digital assistant like Samantha? Will our relationships with these virtual agents augment, or replace, our relationships with other people? All this remains to be seen. Spike Jonze’s Her is an intriguing glimpse into at least one potential future. A recent article on Salon.com speculates that Her, as evidenced by the trailer, contains more sap than substance. We’ll just have to watch the movie and find out for ourselves. If nothing else, the existence of the film shows that virtual agent technologies are firmly rooted in the mainstream. What happens next is still speculation, but not for long.