Can my phone be my best friend?

A study on machine companionship and anthropomorphism

A study published in 2013 demonstrated particular interactions between American soldiers and their robots: while soldiers recognised their robots as tools, their behaviour indicated otherwise; their behaviours suggested empathy and emotional attachment, as they started to anthropomorphise robots by assigning human or animal-like attributes (such as naming them, referring to them as “he” or “she”).

I was intrigued. If after only several weeks with a robotic machine, soldiers on the field started to express emotional attachment and personified them, then what of us and our relationships with ubiquitous devices around us? What of our relationship with our mobile phones for example?

Who do you spend the most time with?

We wake up and fall asleep with them by our side — often times they are the first and last things we interact with in our days. We carry them around in our pockets everywhere we go. They help us work, play and act as comforters in times of boredom. The thought of living a few days without them is unfathomable to some. Mobile phones have become our close companions.

The question arose: What is the nature of our relationship with our mobile devices? Could we ever come to consider them as our best friends?

Why does it matter? Mobile devices are becoming ubiquitous technologies — close to everyone on the planet will be roaming around with little devices in their pockets. In 2014, Internet access from mobile devices surpassed those on desktop. And in developing countries, mobile ownership is booming, with a median of 84% in emerging and developing nations owning some type of cell phone. As technology evolves and new features are introduced, mobile device user interactions may reflect a shift in human habit, thinking and psyche.

The Research Study

What are we looking for?

After further research on Human-Computer Relationships, I conducted a short study to examine individuals’ interactions with new mobile phone technologies. The research question was as follows:

Has our relationships with mobile devices lead to blooming emotional attachment or companionship?

The research findings proved to be quite interesting, and mobile phones turned to be much more than our friendly companions.

The study relied on a semi-structured qualitative interview. To emphasise on the authenticity of experiences and contributions, participants were not told of the study’s focus on affective behaviour and emotion towards devices; rather seemed to focus on mobile usage and interaction. Names of participants has been changed here for anonymous purposes.

With the participants, we examined their typical use of mobile phones, how they used personified tools such as Siri and where their attachment to phones came from. I was looking for areas where emotion and personification would be expressed. On several occasions, conversations took quite a funny turn (stick around for those).

1. Starting off as a tool

What would you say if you were asked if you considered your phone as your friend?

One of the objectives of the study was to explore signs of companion relationships in mobile interaction. Although questions hinted towards this direction, participants displayed no signs of companionship or relationship, and little anthropomorphisation towards their devices. When asked if they had ever talked to solely their phones or if they could consider the device as a companion, participants all let out an indifferent “Phht” and blunt “No”.

Their exchanges during the interview refuted indications of companionship as well; mobile devices were close to always referred to as it and objects of a sentence (as opposed to active subjects); the verb preceding mobile objects by majority was that of to use. In other words, participants’ mobile devices were rarely referred to anything other than a tool.

Where it gets tricky

So far, mobile phones were merely tools. But it gets more complicated. During the study, participants displayed difficulty in disassociating their devices with its connection to the Internet. Such as when asked about a day without their mobile devices, participants expressed the burden of lack of connection to others, which they would have to deal with. Participants expressed as well the fear of missing out, feeling cut off, behind and disconnected from everything.

Loneliness stems from the absence of outside connection, not from absence of the device itself. One participant expressed as being “tied to my phone because it is tied to [a specific] person”. This attachment is generated from the connections the device enables.

Summary: Not just tools, mobile devices act as a medium to connect and communicate to the outside world.

2. Mixed engagements with Siri

What can I help you with?

The study also aimed at examining user interaction with modern cognitive speech features in mobile devices (notably with Apple’s Siri). None of the participants believed in the possibility of recognising Siri as a companion; neither would they talk to Siri out of boredom.

Conversations with Siri seemed like a silly idea. In fact, opinions regarding Siri during the interview proved mixed; participants seemed to both like and dislike Siri. Despite one participant quoting it as a “good idea”, most admitted to rarely use the feature, having only used it once or twice. Siri was useful but none of the participants used it. Why was this?

Participants recognised Siri as possessing a personality, which they judged made the feature much better than those on Android devices. One participant described it as follow:

“You can use it [on Android] but it doesn’t work the same way at all. It’s not like a voice, it’s not like a personality like Siri is. […] It sounds like this horrible robot. […] It just does this horrible formatted response. The voice is horrifying, it sounds like a kill-bot.”

In comparison, Siri was agreed by participants to have a cool human voice. In fact, during the session, participants had much to say about Siri’s voice, notably in comparing the male and female versions. All agreed they preferred the female Siri voice.

TIM: [The] girl’s voice is better, softer.
SOPHIE: Just comforting.
CLARA: He’s just kind of robotic.
SOPHIE: She’s like a mother figure.
CLARA: Yeah! She’s not so abrasive in her demands.

Despite its personality and human voice, participants still referred to Siri as it. He and she were only used as binary opposition, and Siri still mainly remains referred to as a tool, which is used much more often than talked to or asked anything. The Siri cognitive feature seemed to lack a certain aliveness. In comparison, tamagotchis served as anthropomorphised companions certainly because it displayed certain needs which users were required to fulfill. In comparison, Siri acts more as a hands-free tool, which to give commands to.

Summary: Siri isn’t a companion either, but just a function. There was no emotional attachment to Siri. So where does emotion lie?

3. Emotions, feel and touch

How does your phone make you feel?

So far, participants proved no signs of companionship or personification of either their mobile devices or with cognitive features. However, participants did express specific emotions and affective interaction with mobile devices during the discussion. When their devices did not function as wished, participants described as getting angry, frustrated and pissed off, which they expressed physically through touch.

JAKE: When that starts happening, I get all pissed off […] I would clutch it tightly and angrily wait, hit the buttons more forcefully. I do tap much harder when I’m angrier.
CLARA: It’s more jabbing than tapping.
JAKE: Yeah, I jab the hell out of that phone. Stab it with my thumbs.

The same affective touch occurs when caring for their devices, notably when protecting it from water or the rain. One participant described himself as cradling and canopying the device, as one would care for a newborn. Others expressed attachment in the form of treasuring their devices, which they felt tied to.

Summary: Mobile devices serve as a medium for affective interaction. Although emotions are described as the emerging part of relationships, emotional attachment here are expressed not to the device itself, but to the content it enables, the relationship it maintains and the information stored on it.

4. But we’re still attached to our phones somehow. Where does that come from?

Habits and Extension of the Mind

At one point, the device becomes beyond looks and feel, it becomes something more. We start to forget the screen and the look of icons, rather we become thoughts in our mind. We can’t assimilate unique personalities to our mobile devices if the device adopts the our own personality. Because devices are accustomed to the our lives and habits, then the device becomes a domesticated extension of ourself.

This interaction was shown through the recurring uses of look and touch senses during the interview. From canopying to jabbing and stabbing the device with thumbs, emotions toward the device were often expressed through touch. Frustration with devices often required much “looking” as well, such as finding a misplaced folder on the screen. Once the device is domesticated however, one participant described the interaction being as following:

“I don’t think. I don’t even look at the screen now when I want to find where the camera is. So I just touch it and then I just know spatially where it is. Like, Facebook and stuff is just spatial. I don’t deal with the look anymore.”

The act of looking and touching becomes absent, and the senses shift inward and are replaced by intuition. When asked about personalising their devices, participants explained the process through changing their backgrounds, downloading applications, syncing email and accounts, and especially organising their displays. Personification was rather digital than physical, interior to the device rather than exterior.

There becomes a certain domestication of the device through user customisation. Devices and mind come to think alike, becoming one.

Once the device disobeys however, the device becomes the other, and the user looks at and touches it in a different way (where frustration starts to be displayed). At this moment, the device displays a form of outer aliveness, and the device is no longer under the control of the user’s intuition or the mind.

The mobile device does not undertake the form of an outer companion, but rather an inner second brain, and serve as a medium for the mind.

Mobile phones have become so incorporated into people’s daily lives to the extent that, they have become embedded in the representation of the self. Mobile interaction shifts inwards and mobile devices, as a medium, thus become extensions of the mind.


Not a friend, but becoming you

The study focused on exploring novel mobile device and user interactions, notably aimed at signs of anthropomorphism. The focus group study interview revealed an absence of companion relationships between user and mobile device. Devices were overall perceived as a medium for communication and connection to the world. However emotional, affective and sensory interaction revealed a strong, inner attachment to devices. As devices become accustomed and domesticated, senses are replaced by intuition and memory, and mobile devices are inclined to become an extension of the mind.

This study was limited to only one focus group interview, and more data would be required for further exploration and understanding of these particular mobile interactions. It would have also been interesting to explore the participant’s beliefs regarding the personality of their phones, to examine if it reflected their own. More research on the mobile devices’ sensory design would have been interesting as well. As tactile devices, how do designers and developers implement sensory psychology into their products?

/ This article was part of a research paper on Mobile Companionship and Anthropomorphism conducted at the University of Toronto /

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