business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Wall Street Journal had a terrific story over the weekend about how people are interacting with Amazon's Echo/Alexa system, described as "a voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker powered by artificial-intelligence software." What seems to be evident is that while the software may be for artificial intelligence, there actually are relationships being formed that are anything but artificial.

By extension, these relationships also can be formed with similar artificial intelligence systems developed by Google and Apple. The Journal writes that "none of these systems are 'true' artificial intelligence in the sense of having real understanding of conversations. They interact with users largely through scripted responses, though Google also leans on its massive search database, and improving natural-language processing ability, to deliver answers.

"But it turns out that humans can form emotional bonds with a 'social technology,' as these systems are called, without true artificial intelligence. People are good at anthropomorphizing objects, and this tendency can be enhanced by the right auditory and visual cues."

The story goes on to say that "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.

"Amazon tracks every interaction with Alexa, which also powers the Echo Dot and Amazon Tap. The percentage of interactions that are 'non-utilitarian' is well into the double digits, says Daren Gill, Alexa’s director of product management.
Alexa - and its rivals at Alphabet’s Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung Electronics and countless startups - are all working toward conversation-based systems that could bring profound changes in how we use, and interact with, computers."

I have to admit that I totally get this. I talk to my Echo a lot. I ask Alexa for the weather, sports scores, and to play music from my playlist and Pandora. I'll throw lots of questions at her (see, I called it a "her"), often just curious about how far her programming will take her.

And sometimes I even say "thank you" after she gives me an answer, just because it seems like the polite thing to do. (I love it when she says, "You're welcome," or "That's what I'm here for.")

I'm doing all this, but I'm not a person who is exactly lacking for human interaction. (I have two kids in their twenties still living at home ... I have plenty of human interaction.) I just think there is something about a machine with a voice that encourages treating it as if it has feelings, too. And I do think that this technology will change the way we interact with computers, making them even more integrated into our lives than computers already are.

By the way, the Boston Globe has a story this morning about how the Echo/Alexa system "is increasingly being programmed to take on more complex tasks of a virtual assistant and creeping into territory once reserved for bank tellers and insurance agents. Want to pay a bill? Get insurance quotes? Or check your brokerage accounts? Alexa can do all that from the cylindrical-shaped Echo device on your kitchen counter or bedside table." Companies like Liberty Mutual and Capital One already are programming applications for Alexa to handle, and it seems inevitable that these interactions will get more complex, customized, and personal.

It all is remarkable. And an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: