Crafting an Artificial Soul

Designing personality and character in AI assistants

For the past 10 years, palm sized touch screens have been our portal to the future. Our interactions have taken the form of infinite scrolls, and right-swipes. But with the imminent rise of AI assistants, conversational interfaces are quickly moving from fiction into daily routine. It’s time for companies at the forefront of assistant development to think about how we’ll design their personalities — and ethics. While today’s AI assistants feel transactional, empty, and even slightly annoying, any uptake in their soft skills could be revolutionary.

While today’s AI assistants feel transactional, empty, and even slightly annoying, any uptake in their soft skills could be revolutionary.

Siri and Alexa may know a couple of your embarrassing secrets, but you’d be hard-pressed to call either a friend. Their tinny voices that rattle from within our devices still feel distant and digitized, a far cry from the conversational relationship we’re all waiting for.

Our interactions with today’s assistants are purely transactional, partially due to their limited scope of intelligence, but reinforced significantly by their distinguishable lack of character, empathy, and personality. The problem is, speaking to your computer still feels like… speaking to a computer. And while there are some technical hurdles to jump before we each have a ubiquitous general assistant, it’s not too early to think about their hows and their whys, not merely their whats and their whens. How will we design their personalities? Their ethics? How will they sound? Whose interests will they favour? And will they be more like a servant, a friend, or an extension of our own consciousness?

We believe there will be two categories of AI assistants that will rise simultaneously: General Assistants like Siri and Alexa, and Vertical Assistants like the one you might find within your Starbucks, Spotify or Uber app. The design of these assistants’ personalities and character opens a new category of marketing and brand strategy. Conversational acuity is the next mode of transaction and informational transmission. As this understanding of conversational intelligence steals the spotlight, poets, comedians, and translators will become the designers of our assistants. Our current need for graphic and interaction design will transform into conversational design — the oldest universal interface.

The design of these assistants’ personalities and character opens a new category of marketing and brand strategy.

Branded Personalities

Where images and video once connected us to products, voice and conversation are about to take the spotlight. When a screen is removed from our transactions, audio will play a much more significant role in our brand familiarity and loyalty. The use of cadence, tone, and expression will become paramount to the companies we now listen to, rather than see. Brands will have to use tone-of-voice with intention — is your assistant more likely to sound like you, or like the person you aspire to be? Will a taxi app have the accent of an English chauffeur? Or will a millennial music app use internet slang to connect with its audience? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s important to consider how assistants will leverage humour. Everyone loves a laugh, but can the AI joke around while also staying aligned to brand values? Will jokes be tailored to you as the user, or told from the perspective of a distant marketing team? As the ability to design conversational interaction extends beyond the humdrum of gendered voices, brands have a new frontier to experiment with, and the challenge of earning our loyalty and trust.

A New Style of Art

Those responsible for designing and marketing our new AI assistants have an expansive blank canvas. Our perception of how these interactions will feel is currently bound by characters like Kit, Hal, and Scarlett Johansson — but the potential extends far beyond what can be conceived in two hours on the silver screen. As conversation becomes the highway for information transmission and transactions, the art of how companies use words will surge. The detail that we currently use in graphic and web design will be layered over written copy and voice delivery. The AI assistant’s ability to identify intricacies in tone and emotion, fine tuning its sense of humour, and elongating that perfect pause will be the difference between customers feeling like they are speaking to a computer versus an actual friend.

As conversation becomes the highway for information transmission and transactions, the art of how companies use words will surge.

A Reflection of your Favourite Personalities

At Snips we believe that General Assistants will be highly customizable and Vertical Assistants will carry the traits of a brand. In today’s General Assistants everyone’s voice sounds pretty much the same. Sure you can pick Siri’s gender and once in a while Morgan Freeman’s voice is available on Waze. None of these assistant experiences are individually customized for you. Yet.Imagine an onboarding process that involved a conversational interview designing your assistant is tailored to your tastes. Your AI could simply scan your archive of texts and conversations to develop a personality that is a reflection of those who you cherish most.

None of these assistant experiences are individually customized for you. Yet.

We’ve all heard the idea that we are the reflection of the 5 people we spend the most time with, but what if our assistants were also designed in the image of those we know we have personality chemistry with? Decoding the character of the people we get along with best could not only guide our assistants, but also provide some interesting insight into who we spend our time with, and why.

Music Will Bring Context

There are times in our lives when music simply fills the background, like in an elevator — but sometimes music can fuel our emotions. Think Tarantino meticulously choosing the perfect soundtrack for a shootout scene. Music has the ability to become more than just content — in assistant-based conversation, music will provide auditory context. How the user is intended to feel, and how they should act could be uniquely influenced by the soundtrack of the moment. Cue the horns!

As we come to rely on general assistants… we need them to act in OUR best interests, not the interests of the companies under the hood.

The Moral Compass

Considering the fact that today’s general AI assistants are controlled by massive, publicly-traded companies, it’s tough to know whose interests they truly put first: those of the individual user, or those of the shareholder? As our assistants learn more about us as users, data privacy is going to become a primary concern. What our assistants (or the companies who run them) are allowed to do with our personal data should be a question on everyone’s mind. And as we come to rely on general assistants to help us navigate our days and serve us content, we need them to act in OUR best interests, not the interests of the companies under the hood. We need to know who’s behind the curtain.

There needs to be a commitment to the concept of AI neutrality.

There needs to be a commitment to the concept of AI neutrality, a promise from the creators of the AI that your assistant will always act in your favour, rather than those trying to serve you ads. There’s an opportunity for the first AI assistant’s ‘code of ethics’ — a set of principles similar to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. This code would guide a moral compass to our assistants, from their privacy policies, to their decision making processes. We as users should be confident that our digital compadres are always putting our best interests ahead of a profit-generating agenda.

The Sum of Our Conversations

Conversational exchange has always been our richest form of communication. There’s no quicker way to ask a question, or fire a response than with voice. And while a picture might be worth a thousand words, no emoji can capture the trembling of someone’s voice or the excitement of a true exclamation mark.

We are the sum of our conversations — and conversations are poised to become our primary form of interaction with technology.

We are the sum of our conversations — and conversations are poised to become our primary form of interaction with technology. Our AI assistants will have the opportunity to push our personal intelligence and curiosity to new heights, questioning our habits and encouraging us to widen the horizon of our perspectives. We’ll no longer need to read long articles for the few useful nuggets of information, or have to type epic love letters on microscopic keyboards.

As our voices are about to become the command line, we are putting the wealth of the internet just a query away, so let’s hope that those who design our AI assistant’s character and soul give us the friend we’ve all been waiting for.