A Question of Agency

Virtual assistants are the new hotness. A bunch of startups, as well as some of the world’s largest technology companies, hope we’ll soon switch from doing things with our computers (aka our phones) to asking our computers to do things for us. They’re offering conversational interfaces that simulate human assistants. Or in some cases actual humans pretending to be simulated assistant. Welcome to the age of the Mechanical Turk.

I’m all for conversational interfaces. But I don’t need a “personal shopping assistant” that ultimately retrieves the same results I could find on Amazon in half the typing and a tenth the time. Or a natural language interface for web search that feels like an elaborate “let me Google that for you”. Even my favorite product in this space, x.ai, feels like a workaround that wouldn’t be necessary if we could just standardize calendar sharing.

What surprises me is that, despite all of these advances in technology, we’re still too timid to delegate our personal agency to software. We seem more ready to let our cars drive for us than to let software write messages for us or make decisions on our behalf. We trust computers to do things for us, but not as us.

Perhaps we feel that computers lack the nuance to represent us with sufficient fidelity. Maybe we’re afraid of losing our last edge over the machines. Or we’re just control freaks.

Regardless of the reason, we’re leaving an enormous opportunity on the table. Software can only take us so far until we’re willing to take a leap of faith and trust it. Sure, computers make mistakes, but people make mistakes too. Why are we so forgiving of one but so distrusting of the other?

Besides, we already put our lives in the hands of machines that we implicitly trust every time we get in an elevator or take a flight. Our distrust of software seems quite selective!

Our computers are such an intimate part of our lives that they may know us better than our loved ones. We invest our attention in them and trust them with our most personal data.

So let’s demand more return on that investment. With a little bit of our trust, our computer can do so much more for us. As us.

Let the age of software agents begin!