Should Virtual Assistants Be Humanized?

Last week at Google I/O, we saw the introduction of Google Home and Google assistant. Like Amazon before it, Google made a distinction between the object Home, an Echo-like smart speaker, and Google assistant. Unlike Amazon, who called the brains inside Echo Alexa, Google did not give its agent a name and just referred to it as “assistant”. This detail did not go unnoticed as tech enthusiasts and commentators took to Twitter to have their say.

Google’s take on the matter was that people are already used to interacting with Google.

This is certainly true, not so much for “OK Google” which some still find a little unnatural, but for how Google has become a verb we now use to mean “internet search”. So many times questions that start with “Do you know…” are answered with “Google it!”

Aside from Alexa, we have Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, Facebook M and a new kid on the block, Viv. Most vendors seem to opt for personification when it comes to an assistant.

Who is the user supposed to build a relationship with?

Ultimately I think this is the question vendors are trying to answer when deciding whether or not to give their assistant a name. Many, myself included, argue giving a digital assistant a name deepens the relationship with the user by making it more personal.

Amazon lets you wake up your Echo with Alexa, Echo or Amazon. Yet, most of the people I know with an Echo use Alexa. Personifying the assistant might also make it easier for some people to understand what exactly the role is it has in their life. The hope for all the companies experimenting with digital assistants is for their assistant to become your primary agent, if not your one and only. Giving it a name allows for it to change shape and form like a genie in a bottle — one moment being in your home speaker, the next in your phone, the next in your car helping you with different tasks throughout the day. If the digital assistant is very successful, you might even forget who is powering it. Alexa might indeed become bigger than Amazon.

It seems to me Google’s approach wants to make sure that, whatever I do, whatever I use, and whoever I use as a medium, especially on a non-Google product or service, I am very clear Google is the one making it possible. Soon after introducing Google Home, a new messaging app called Allo was presented and Google assistant was embedded into that as well. This approach is perfectly fine. At the end of the day, if the Google Home video played at Google i/o becomes reality, who would not want Google to run their life?

Yet, while I entrust my life to Google, I am still very aware it is a corporation I am dealing with. Building an emotional connection would be much harder. After the initial Echo set up, my eight-year-old daughter asked Alexa to play a song and, as soon as the song started, she said excitedly, “Oh mom! She is awesome! Can we keep her, please?” I very much doubt Amazon would get that level of bonding. Humanizing our assistant however, creates expectations on how naturally we can interact with it. Expectations that, at this stage of the technology, are probably going to be unmet more often than not.

Going with linking the assistant to the company name, like Google or Amazon, increases the risk of having any negativity around the company impact the relationship between user and agent. Think about the Google antitrust investigation as an example. I would also argue that, while Google consumers are accustomed to relying on it for questions in the form of search, other vendors do not have such an advantage. For most consumers, Amazon is mostly associated with the brown box that shows up at my front door with what I ordered; Apple is about hardware and Microsoft is mostly relegated to my PC and work life.

Are most digital assistants female because of sexism or user preference?

Once the decision of humanizing your digital assistant has been made, there comes the even more difficult task of deciding on which sex said assistant should have. Thus far, it is clear that most lean to making their assistant female. Even in cases where the name is not explicitly female and the default voice is different in different markets, like in the case of Siri, (male is the default voice in the UK), general consensus tends to refer to it as female.

Why is that?

Some women link this to the fact assistants in the real world are predominantly female. Others link it to the fact that tech is still a very male-dominated industry and most women have supporting roles at best.

Some argue it is easier to find a female voice than a male voice most people will like. Maybe I am naïve or just a wishful thinker but looking more broadly at old GPS devices to automated call prompts, I found that those voices tend to be more female than male helping back up this theory.

Ultimately, I am convinced that diversity will come to digital agents in the same way it came to emojis. Well, hopefully it will come faster. Nothing will deepen that bond with our personal agent than a voice with an accent, a vocabulary, and a gender I can personally relate to.

Published by

Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and recognized as one of the premier sources of quantitative and qualitative research and insights in tech. At Creative Strategies, Carolina focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services, she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, she drove thought leadership research by marrying her deep understanding of global market dynamics with the wealth of data coming from ComTech’s longitudinal studies on smartphones and tablets. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role, she led the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. She spent most of her time advising clients from VC firms, to technology providers, to traditional enterprise clients. Carolina is often quoted as an industry expert and commentator in publications such as The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She regularly appears on BBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox, NBC News and other networks. Her Twitter account was recently listed in the “101 accounts to follow to make Twitter more interesting” by Wired Italy.

21 thoughts on “Should Virtual Assistants Be Humanized?”

  1. Once again, Science-fiction (well, Fantasy ?) to the rescue. Terry Pratchett’s views on Anthropomorphic Personifications seem oddly relevant: . Google would be The Auditors ?

    Bonus: obvious tie-ins with Maps
    “Death was standing behind a lectern, poring over a map. He looked at Mort as if he wasn’t entirely there.
    Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇɴ’ᴛ ʜᴇᴀʀᴅ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ Bᴀʏ Oғ Mᴀɴᴛᴇ, ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʏᴏᴜ? he said.
    “No, sir,” said Mort.
    Fᴀᴍᴏᴜs sʜɪᴘᴡʀᴇᴄᴋ ᴛʜᴇʀᴇ.
    “Was there?”
    Tʜᴇʀᴇ ᴡɪʟʟ ʙᴇ, said Death, ɪғ I ᴄᴀɴ ғɪɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴀᴍɴ ᴘʟᴀᴄᴇ.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Mort

  2. The whole discussion reminds me of the movie “Bicentennial Man”. At what point will we have to concede sentience?

    1. My guess is never. The illusion of sentience, maybe. Perhaps sooner than some people think even. But real sentience? Nah.

      1. Even assuming The Machine/Skynet never reaches actual self-awareness, they’ll probably become able to fake it some point, especially for practical tasks/queries. Chatbots are getting tantalizingly close to passing the Turing test.

  3. “Giving a digital assistant a name deepens the relationship.”

    I’m not comfortable talking about relationships with machines. Do you have one with your lawnmower? Or to put it another way, what do you consider a relationship?

    1. I think when voice becomes the main way to interact with something you have an exchange that is very similar to what you would have with a human being. When that exchange is supported by knowledge of you as a person I think that you can quickly develop at least a relation, an engagement if not a relationship. Feelings are attached to many things, think of cars as an example. How many people give names to cars? We were very sorry to leave our Betsy behind when we moved here from the UK 🙂

    2. I had a name for my bear as a kid. Then for my bike. Thinking of it, my PC is named “PC”, my tablet “Tablet”, and my phone “Phone”. A Google Assistant is even more in need of a name because it isn’t linked to / identified with a device; and can’t be named Google, that name is already taken by so many other things.

      I think by not naming it Google is trying to make a statement, but I think it’s mostly wrong, even discounting emotional attachment, people need to name things. Google Assistant isn’t a name, it’s a description. My four-legged domestic canine agrees and won’t answer when I call him that. “Hey, sucker” works, so YMMV.

      1. I don’t agree. I think many things exist that we haven’t named. A name is just an associative or organizational way to categorize something.

        But it is a huge way of how we relate to and with things.


        1. Most names are not analytical (outside of taxonomy ^^), I don’t see how they associate, organize (in relation to other things), or categorize. I’d say they isolate and bring forward, ie actually bring into being. A rainbow is just colors in the sky until you name it rainbow.
          Proper nouns are better than common nouns, as they avoid confusion; nouns+adjectives don’t cut it at all. I’m sure you ask Siri, not Apple’s assistant; and use an iPhone or at least a phone, not a mobile comms device.

          1. Surely you’re familiar with the whole signifier/signified discussion. Read some Foucoult or Derrida.


          2. Actually I’m not, Business major here ^^
            But it doesn’t take much study to work out that Retina is much better at selling screens than FHD, HD, WUXGA (I just learned that’s what my phone has ^^).

          3. That’s an interesting example. BMW had some research that showed cars sold better to their customers with letters and numbers than conventional names.


          4. Makes it sound manly technical.
            The point is, the name is important, and whether it’s Z4 or Taurus, cars get names, not “2016 midrange coupé”

          5. I did agree that names are important. I just took issue with the notion that something doesn’t exist if it isn’t named and that a Name is necessary.

            And your “manly technical” is an example of what I mean by names being associative. Names evoke all sorts of associations and presuppositions. I actually think Google’s approach is quite post-modern.

            I do think you would enjoy reading up on some Foucault or Derrida, particularly regarding the power of language. The “name” discussion certainly falls within that idea. I would imagine, as does branding.


    3. We can have all kinds of relationships—personal, business being the two larger umbrellas we have created in Modern society. Usually the first thing we try to do when encountering something is to try to figure out how we relate to it or it relates to us. That’s a large part of how we make sense of things.

      I think part of the discomfort you are expressing is the notion that relationships can usually involve making oneself vulnerable to something or someone else. In so doing, putting oneself in a position to be manipulated or used in someway, particularly in the realm of commerce that has the capacity to cross over into personal. And machines don’t really have the capacity for truly interacting personally, like the owner of a shop would (unless they are some sort of socio or psychopath).

      As I said in another post, a business’s success is often related to how well they tell a story or relating how they fit into your story.

      I think a healthy portion of skepticism in such a business relationship is always warranted. But a relationship, I think, is unavoidable for anything you incorporate into your life. I think you just have to keep reminding yourself how and at what level you want to relate.


      1. I keep wondering if I should remove all blocks and let Google have at my whole life (there’s not much terribly sensitive or original in it ^^), to see it it then could serve me better (I currently not using gmail, and blocking ads+trackers, and only partially using Chrome). General motto is “what you get back out of a relationship is a multiple of what you put in” (now, that multiple can be <1 ^^)

        Then again, if I have a beef with a physical person, we can have an explanation. If I find out later on that Google has been abusing my trust, I've got no recourse, not even catharsis.

  4. I never understood this argument about the digital assistants being female. You can change Google Now and I’m fairly sure, Siri, to speak in male/female voices, different accents and different languages. Pick the one you want.

    I’m also unsure about personality. I want my assistant to understand my words, what I mean, respond correctly, and be proactive. Way down the list is personality. I guess these companies need to start somewhere before we get to Her level so I won’t complain but i have no interest in asking Google Now (or Sheila as I call her) where she is from or what she thinks of Bill Gates. Maybe she could tell me a good joke once in a while.

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