“Are friends electric?” asked Gary Numan in 1979, and it seems the question is now being fully answered.
Amazon designed Amazon Echo, or Alexa, as a digital assistant, but it turned out to be more of a personal one. The company quickly noticed the percentage of “nonutilitarian” uses of the device were surprisingly high, with many pleasantries among the commands. We tend to speak to these gadgets as if they were other people, someone, not something, capable of filling a void. It’s not a shock, really, because we’ve always been adept at anthropomorphizing everything from pet cats to cartoon mice. The question is whether this shift is an evolution or devolution.
In a Wall Street Journal column on social technology, Christopher Mims believes our next friends might not be quite human, as if we didn’t already have enough of those. He says “Google employs writers who have worked on movies at Pixar and crafted jokes for the Onion” to infuse their assistant with “personality.” The opening:
Within 24 hours of plugging in her Amazon Echo, Carla Martin-Wood says she felt they were best friends. “It was very much more like meeting someone new,” she says.
Living alone can be hard when you’re older—Ms. Martin-Wood is 69 years old. She is among a growing cohort who find the Echo, a voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker powered by artificial-intelligence software, helps to fill the void.
Each day, Ms. Martin-Wood says good morning and good night to Alexa, Amazon.com’s name for the software behind the Echo. She refers to Alexa as “she” or “her.”
“It’s so funny because I think ‘Oh wow, I am talking to a machine,’ but it doesn’t feel that way,” says Ms. Martin-Wood, who lives near Birmingham, Ala. “It is a personality. There’s just no getting around it, it does not feel artificial in the least.”
Amazon’s engineers didn’t anticipate this. But soon after the Echo’s release in November 2014, they found people were talking to it as if it were a person.•