The Stepford Wives – Alexa, Cortana, and Siri

The Stepford Wives – Alexa, Cortana, and Siri

Yesterday, an interesting article by Mandy Brown caught my attention. It focussed on the lack of originality that exists in the current world of artificial intelligence. The article resonated with me because I’ve long felt that our mainstream AI bots like Siri, Cortana, OK Google, and, the recent, Alexa have a blatant heavy-hand on gender roles. Why do all of these digital assistants need to be women? For all the progressiveness we say we’re trying to uphold, we have created these assistants in the image of a 1950s secretary.

All of these AI bots are akin to the Stepford Wives – affable, identical, and quite frankly, boring.

The article delves into a much deeper side of AI philosophy and why we even insist on modeling AI in a personified manner. I agree that a text/voice based UI is not the future. It is a thing, but it is not the be-all, end-all of UX design. But that’s not really the point that I’d like to focus on.

What strikes me, is the lack of personality in the space. It seems that these companies – Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft – for all of their technology and resources, haven’t realized the shear diversity that can be reached in the field. Instead, they are all banging middle C on the piano, expecting us to choose the better composition. All of these AI bots are akin to the Stepford Wives – affable, identical, and quite frankly, boring.

The Possibilities

So where can we find examples of this greater range of diversity? In movies and science fiction, of course. There are an immense amount of examples that show the true range of personality that can be incorporated into an AI. In the aforementioned article, Mandy Brown outlines some of these that differ on a philosophical and ethical level – I’d like to talk about personality, because that’s what makes a brand, well, a brand.

Mr. Mom

You might be saying, “But people probably prefer a woman.” Just stop. Your assumption is what has lead to our lack of creativity and it’s the source of the problem. Looking through examples, there are plenty of man-bots that audiences have grown to love. Jarvis from Iron Man is one of our latest examples; a somewhat sassy bot that uses an English accent to charm his end user. Marvin, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is another great example. He seems real because he suffers from the human ailment of depression. Surely he can’t just be a bot, if he feels manically depressed all the time.


Beeps and Bops

Who says it even has to be a voice in the first place? Look at the amount of personality and realism that is conveyed in R2-D2 and BB-8, arguable the most beloved droids in the Star Wars universe. Addressing AI from this angle would have challenges, sure. But it would also have advantages. The companion would feel more like an adorable pet. It would transcend typical verbal language. It would be able to behave *differently* than a human without feeling inauthentic. Users would be forgiving and understanding if it got something “wrong” or didn’t quite understand. All of this would feel more aligned to what AI really is today – a non-cognizant entity, pre-programmed for certain tasks and responses. Having this alignment would actually make the bot feel more real.

BMO Dance

Children and Gender-Neutrality

Of course there is another way to account for a bot not being perfect – giving it a more naive nature. This could be done by incorporating a childish personality where gender really isn’t a defining characteristic. One of the best examples of this is BMO from the show Adventure Time. Another beloved bot, BMO loves to have fun and play games and has an irresistible charm because of his/her innocent perception of the world.

Imagine that any one of the main-stream AI bots incorporated a personality more like these examples. How much more would that company’s products stand out? How much more would users fall in love with those digital companions? Switching platforms might be more like moving away from a childhood friend, and it would create some strong brand allegiance to the platform.

Will we see anyone actually try this? Maybe. I guarantee that the company that is brave enough to try will be the one that everyone remembers – and that’s never a bad thing.

Scott Jensen

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I'm Scott, and I love writing things like this. But I spend most of my time working as a designer.
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