Should you design for anthropomorphism in AI?

After decades of loyal service, a ceramic java container is profoundly disturbed by a recent demotion to loose coin holder. Text and image created by Real Weird Art and used with artist permission.

When conducting research on voice assistants and chatbots, some of the most frequently asked questions we received from clients and conference attendees focus on anthropomorphism. Namely, how should we handle anthropomorphism? For example:

The first step in determining your digital assistant strategy and approach to anthropomorphism is understanding what it is. Here, we surfaced evidence from psychology, HCI, and mixed in everyday observations to offer an understanding of what anthropomorphism means. While a discussion around anthropomorphism is often like stepping in quicksand, descending into highly variable individual differences, we provide a list of recommendations and pitfalls for how to deal with anthropomorphism that apply to a broad audience, no matter what product you are working on in the AI assistant domain.

The Ubiquity of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism — the word doesn’t roll off the tongue, but we all do it. We anthropomorphize in two ways:

Seeing human forms in inanimate objects, collected from the r/Pareidolia thread on Reddit

Recommendations

There are clear shoulds and shouldn’ts when it comes to anthropomorphism:

Smiling Anna G, the renowned Italian design brand Alessi’s best-selling corkscrew design. We couldn’t help but ask, where is the male version of this?

Morteza: “[The wake word] Alexa makes it sound like a person. So when it makes a mistake, I feel mad and I yell at it, I feel like I’m rude to a child. When I changed its name from ‘Alexa’ to ‘Computer,’ I’m not mad at it when it makes mistakes.”

Sonny, the robot that learned the pro-social type of deceit in the film I, Robot (2004)

So, to the question earlier ‘Just how do you enculturate a bot?’ the answer is that it is impossible to not enculturate a bot. We are already enculturating a bot even by doing nothing, as anthropomorphism is unavoidable and that’s OK.

This article contains selected content from the white paper ‘Elements of a Successful Digital Assistant and How to Apply Them’ published recently by AnswerLab. We had users nationwide try 9 voice apps and 12 chatbots over two weeks. The digital assistants represented industries spanning financial services, healthcare, and retail. Download the full findings here.

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Last but not least, thank you Real Weird Art, for all the inspirational discussions on the topic and permission to use your work!

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Lin Nie

Research at Peloton, UX of AI | Ph.D. in experimental psychology, embodied cognition | I have a poor poker face