Personality in Conversational AI — Can a Bot have a Personality?

As a psychologist, writer, and artist, I can confidently tell you that personality is significant when you want to build healthy relationships, leave a strong impact, and create memorable impressions. Sadly, a majority of people in the conversational AI space still don’t seem to take personality seriously or give it any consideration at all when they are working on building “intelligent bots”. Why is that?

From what I see and observe, I think it’s because of the following reasons that personality is still not given much importance in the the world of conversational artificial intelligence.

Lack of Awareness Beyond One’s Area of Expertise: First of all, conversational AI is one place in the universe where people from different backgrounds and skill sets, like developers, machine learning engineers, psychologists, conversation designers, UX researchers, and linguists meet. You can imagine the differences, and you should be able to understand the gaps in skills, understanding, goal-setting, and aspiring. If you’d use only a team of developers and machine learning engineers, you can say for sure that your product is going to not half as “intelligent” as you want it to be. But when psychologists, linguists, and designers are on-boarded, they often feel inhibited by the abilities of AI — they can’t say (because they themselves don’t know) what’s realistic to expect and what’s too crazy to even consider. This is like having every ingredient on earth in your kitchen, and still not trying to cook anything aside from your staple foods because you don’t know what other recipes you can try!

Can a Machine Have a Personality?

The good ol’ Conformist Attitude — Doing What Everyone Else Does: It’s funny how we humans often dream of reaching great heights, but still don’t make enough of what we have at hand. If seven out of eight companies would focus only on intents, utterances, entities, data collection, classification algorithms, neural network models, integrations, scripts, UI, and marketing, why must my people and I do anything different?

Being Skeptical about a Bot having a Personality: I wouldn’t be surprised if someone would laugh out loud or call it a waste of time and effort to give a bot a personality. Because many of them do think so. Well, we humans tend to naturally develop personalities, like we naturally learn and communicate, so if you believe that a machine can learn, why can’t it be given a personality, too? It is very much doable. While trying to make a machine understand and speak like humans do, it’s not idealistic by any means to consider adding human characteristics as well.

Being Unaware of the Strength of Personality: What if I told you that a key difference between a chatbot and a conversational AI is that one is incapable of having a personality, while the other can be made to flaunt a personality of its own? No, you can’t accomplish this by merely adding a few phrases and jokes and greetings here and there. You like or rather love your favourite fictional characters and celebrities because you love their personality traits. Something about them impresses you. And one measure of how good a product or service is how well it can retain existing users and attract new users, right? Isn’t that what we should aim for our conversational agent to be able to achieve as well? Giving your conversational AI a distinct personality would certainly help your “bot” become more human-like.

Would you believe me if I told you that every time you love a fictional character, like the Joker or James Bond, it’s actually the brains behind the character that you’re loving, not the character itself? That is the power of personality, of good writing and research. Google Search, Siri, and Alexa are all powerful, but none of them are really “interesting”. Why? You should be able to understand this now — because they are designed to be only useful, and nothing more. You can’t build a bond where there exists no such a thing as a consistent personality.

Building a Bot with a Personality: Of course, as mentioned earlier, you can’t add personality to a character or bot easily. That’s like expecting anyone capable of reading and writing to write novels. You would need a dedicated team to achieve this. But again, from a business standpoint, is it worth it? How must you judge if your product or service has this requirement? That again depends on a few factors. What is your goal? If it’s a simple IT service desk agent, designed to offer simple answers for typical questions, it doesn’t make much sense to invest in a conversational AI for that, let alone consider bringing in one with a personality!

Building Personality in Conversational AI

On the other hand, if it’s a powerful conversational AI with a distinct purpose, then I would suggest that you make it as human-like or as unique and suitable as possible. For example, if your conversational AI is “employed” to assist professionals in the emergency ward in a hospital, there is no point in your product being “funny”. If you are working on a conversational AI that would offer support to cancer patients, then empathy is definitely going to be a key trait. In some cases, you might have to create multiple personalities to help different kinds of users. For example, if it’s a virtual friend that you’re trying to create, then you must invest in creating a personality that goes well with users’ expectations, which would require that you study users’ personalities, too. I hope you get the point!

With the power of NLP growing, if you are not going to try to make the best of it, then you can’t expect users and clients to think of your product as anything more than a “bot”. If you work in the field of conversational AI, you know how people treat bots! What then is the point of all that research and effort? Why is your brand still not considering bot personality? Because of the gap we talked about? Because your boss is too skeptical to even consider this? Come again, your bot boasts of sentience, but has no personality? Do give it some thought.

Honestly, there is a lot of scope. Forget chatbots and telecallers, even secretaries and travel guides can be replaced by conversational AI. Let’s hope to create highly intelligent conversational AI products that would serve humanity in several different domains.

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Lakshmi Prakash

Lakshmi Prakash

A conversation designer and writer interested in technology, mental health, gender equality, behavioral sciences, and more.