Our favourite virtual friends.

You'll never meet them face to face, surely?

Our favourite virtual friends.
Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

I think sometimes that they’re a really dysfunctional family or group of friends that used to get along and no longer do. They’re nice everytime and they usually say hi back. Yet, you’ll never meet them face to face. Not because they are too busy, they always make time for you. And they aren’t shy, they talk a lot. They can be stupid but seem to know a lot and they never stop using the internet.

So without further ado, meet Alexa, Siri, J.A.R.V.I.S., etc.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Okay, you know them and probably can talk to at least one of the crew. And maybe you’ve seen J.A.R.V.I.S.'s face, but F.R.I.D.A.Y. serves the same virtual assistant purpose. With these digital interfaces, we can only have conversations with them and we only hear their voices. Built for us, these internet-based creations serve us and talk to us as an alternative or when we don’t want to look at our screens. The purpose is to read text aloud, and now they can help us move to a more hands-free future - play/pause Spotify or answer that pub quiz question asking when the Renaissance began. A lot of us have access to Siri or its cousins, and I’m going to make a sweeping statement and say that we don’t talk to them that much on our phones and tablets. But as Apple and similar brands continue to invest heavily in these technologies, is it time we piece together why they prize virtual voices so much?

Credit: Apple

The NASDAQ calls them ‘virtual helpers’ which is perhaps the direction that they may move towards. Siri and co. have come a long way from their origins and may continue to be iterated as we integrate back to work into a more hands-free world. Platforms and devices may require more hygiene in the workplace and the continual growth of the headphone market sees the virtual assistants only a request away. But perhaps these assistants work better for each of us individually, rather than in an office. Alexa is available on call in our home offices and kitchens; we can utilise that freedom we have at home - something that isn’t routinely adopted in workplaces of old. It’s like they’ve become a tiny personal assistant that is there if we need it, although it’s super limited. These voices don’t replace people but aid our work. It’s sweet to dream of the continual investment and R&D will keep on improving their responses and accuracy but will any of them really reach best friend levels as J.A.R.V.I.S. did with Tony? Perhaps, we’ll see increased personalisation but the fact remains that it aims to serve us as an assistant or indeed helper, not replacing them.

In this time of distancing, we know the value of good old human interaction and we dearly miss it. Virtual time isn’t the same as in-person time. We need to see people face-to-face and FaceTime is basically the same but only a stop-gap - not the long term solution. Try keeping up a friendship forever virtually, or meeting new people - yeah it’s hard. We find that these virtual assistants work best at home where we lack another human to bounce off for work or a knowledgeable friend. Fundamentally, humans build relationships with other people and other things and we like that connection.

And we are also unpredictable. So what if we went about making virtual assistants more full of surprises and giving them humour, and tricks? There is the issue of where do you draw the line with how much they, and their respective technology, can control and lead to but if we make them more like our pets, our dogs and cats, we may grow fond of them. By adding a touch of personality, these virtual things turn to our virtual animals and we can form a different relationship with it, we’d miss their take on that news article or just need to hear them daily. Maybe they’d be good to rant at, just replying and letting us empty our fury onto their electric minds. And a short point on privacy, because of the assistants’ alert nature. As issues have been raised about these intelligent devices microphones, Amazon and Google’s technology changes faster than we can adapt socially, and the ownership of our information and conversations isn’t the property of these multinational companies, as much as they say they don’t store the information, we can’t quite know. Privacy has to be the first requirement if these interpersonal devices continue to be a part of our modern lives. Siri and Apple’s focus has always been on privacy and Apple is finally recruiting better and seeing results. Siri is catching up to the other digital assistants and also keeping the data encrypted and unavailable for use. Apple try to keep to its moral and standards which is part of its name. That’s a huge plus, but it should definitely be the universal requirement going forward.

These virtual assistants that help us will only continue to develop and in some shape of another follow us as we grow up. The market for them isn’t clear and there are many, many possibilities for them. Will there be a physical embodiment of them? Or will we be listening to them for so long we will need a physical Siri or Alexa to talk to us? Robot Siri and Robot Alexa. Will their appearances be influenced by pop culture to help ‘normalise’ them? It might seem as if it would be weird but we don’t bat an eye to these virtual assistants on our phones anymore so a real-life family of virtual friends may not be too far down the line - competitive and dysfunctional.

artificial intelligence
Peter Mason
Peter Mason
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Peter Mason

An engineering student in Toronto, born in London. For the oceans. New stories twice per week. Message me on Twitter @1PeterJMason, Instagram @itspetermason and I may share a song. BLM<3

See all posts by Peter Mason