My cat, Rudy, used to go wild when a show with birds came on the television.
He’d run to my Zenith and bat the screen with his paw. Occasionally he’d turn to look at me on the couch and meow as if to say, “You sure you don’t want in on this?”
“They’re not real birds, Sweetheart,” I’d tell him. “They’re bird simulations.” But he kept on behaving like they were the real thing. Silly boy. Of course, humans are more tech savvy than my cat, right? Maybe not.
Students were tutored for an upcoming exam by a voice-equipped computer. After the tutoring session, the students were asked to evaluate the computer’s performance, specifically, how well they thought it had taught them. Half the students were asked to evaluate the computer’s performance by the same computer that had just tutored them, the other half used a different computer across the room – equipped with a different voice – to complete their evaluations. The students consistently gave significantly more positive responses to the computer that asked about itself than they did to the computer across the room. Students felt far more comfortable complaining about the tutoring computer behind its plastic “back” than to its LCD “face.”
For all the years that Homo sapiens have been evolving, the percentage of time we’ve been interacting with computers is infinitesimally small. And because playing nicely with others helped our ancestors’ genes survive, we’re driven to keep doing it, even if the “other” isn’t an actual member of our genus and species. Yes, we may have figured out how to set up email accounts, but that information is being stored in our pathetic, lizard-y, stone age brains next to all the ancient, “How to win friends and influence people” information. So we tend to treat technology – especially technology that can appear to help us – like other humans. And we expect them to behave the same way when they interact with us. If they don’t, if they’re rude, impersonal, and unhelpful, we’re going to feel like accidentally on purpose running them through with a spear during the annual mastodon hunt. Those of us old enough to remember Microsoft’s assistant, Clippy, know what I’m talking about.
iPhone’s voice-activated virtual assistant, Siri, is the first personal experience with artificial intelligence many people have ever had. Siri helps us schedule appointments, order soup on a rainy day while we dance around in our pajamas, and solve our hotspacho* problems. We can even teach Siri our name. So as predicted and by design, our stone age brains have gone mad for Siri to the point where Apple engineers predicted and programmed sassy responses to anticipated questions such as, “will you marry me?”, “Do you love me?”, and “What are you wearing?”
Experiments have shown that one can take almost any social experimental finding and apply it to computer-human interaction. When it conforms to social rules, technology seems more likeable, smarter, more helpful, and harder working. Who knows? In the future, Sears’ device presence may have a voice of its own, but until then we can keep this information in mind when improving our site in lower-tech ways. If our web presence is slow to react or slow to respond, if it shows no regard for what a customer’s wants and needs might be, if it asks for unnecessary information, or can’t remember our customers’ names, then it’s no longer our customers’ ally. And they’re probably going to complain about it behind it’s electronic “back” at a competitor’s website.
*Don’t know what hotspacho is? Watch the Samuel Jackson iPhone 4S/Siri commercial