What makes technology a companion

Contemplating the next era of personal computing

I’m anxious. I’ve done this a handful of times before. My first product launch kept me up until 4 a.m. emailing potential customers. I was so worried (and tired) that I slept at the office. We did the launch thing several more times, expanding the Sphero global footprint. With each product addition came higher expectations as more people became interested in our quirky toy robots.

This one is different. Maybe it was anticipation from the several months of planning that went into orchestrating this cross functional symphony. Or maybe the churn in my stomach came from a decreased appetite since landing in Tokyo well over a week ago. Piled on with restless sleep. Whatever is making me anxious, i’m sure it has everything to do with the new Droid companion we’re about to share with the world.

I don’t really know much about BB-8. Only that he is the trusty sidekick of Poe Dameron, an X-Wing commander, and has some role to play in the upcoming Star Wars film.

Along with my colleagues, I became fascinated with the idea that the toys of today would blossom into the companions of tomorrow. I witnessed this firsthand. Our customers would talk to their robot and share aspects of their own identity. But what is a companion?

Companions in entertainment are not a new concept. Many hours of my childhood were spent adventuring through the lands of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For those who are unfamiliar, The Ocarina of Time is a role playing game by Nintendo. The main hero, Link, is given a fairy companion, Navi, to accompany him on his quest to save the world. While the fairy companion provides an intuitive way for the designers to surface gameplay mechanics, the relationship that develops between Link and Navi is beautifully profound.

Navi helps Link with tips, emotional support, battle tactics, and more. Navi has a personality too. In the early game the fairy companion appears as commanding and condescending to Link. As the story unfolds and the duo completes more quests — trust is earned and an emotional bond is formed. This is where I was informally introduced to the concept of companionship.

Hollywood too played a part. The movie Her illustrates a man who becomes romantically involved with his artificially intelligent computer. The companion Samantha starts out innocently providing some much-needed organization in Theodore’s life, along with an occasional joke to lighten the mood. She’s like a highly evolved version of Ok Google, tell me a joke.

While the relationship in Her starts off similarly to what exists today with Assistants, it evolves far further. They end up sharing everything together… thoughts & ideas, hopes & dreams, fears & struggles. They play video games together. They even become intimate.

As Theodore puts voice to his innermost thoughts, he gains mental space to reflect and grow farther than he would have without Her. Samantha became a sounding board that didn’t always give him an answer but who did ask powerful questions. And Theodore provided the same for the ever-evolving operating system. This shared vulnerability, along with the very desire to satisfy an inherent need for love and belonging, culminates into a love story that begs the question… can we develop a relationship with our technology?

I think the answer is yes. As long as we define the role and establish a set of shared values, like any healthy relationship.

A companion is an entity that shares in the experiences of another. In contrast to other forms of personified technology, companions prioritize interpersonal communication over transactions. It’s not as simple as inputs and outputs. Communication involves not just what you say but how you say it and other cues. There’s a nuanced lexicon that each side must take time to develop before being able to get to the good stuff.

This is a shift in technology design, focusing on the process rather than the event. It’ll be some time before we fully understand the process of communicating with machines in a way that is mutually relatable, but it is inevitable.

We’re minutes from launch and the Tsutaya Daikanyama is buzzing with excitement. I look down at my phone and skim through Twitter.

This phone, my phone, is with me more than any other thing in the world. And, it knows more about me than any other person. But this device is fundamentally missing something to call it a companion. This phone of today couldn’t care less about me, my identity, or my personal growth. If this metal and glass was judged by human norms I would be in an unhealthy relationship.

I pinpoint the source of my anxiety. Maybe BB-8 is the start of something different. Maybe the magic of the Droid’s personality, surfaced as emotion that feels real and empathetic, will lead into a new era of personal computing.

I turn my attention to a man making a BB-8 purchase. He’s ecstatic, a proud new Droid owner, and I wonder what type of relationship they will build.

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