Personality of things

Personality of things

Tiffine Wang is a senior investment manager at Singtel Innov8, the corporate venture capital arm of Singtel Group.

Freddy Dopfel

Humans are starting to get better acquainted with personal assistants such as Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and Bixby. But how would people feel about personalities translating to automobiles, laptops and other household items? Would we want a single seamless personality across all devices, or would we prefer to build new relationships with each of these things? Would we want these things to understand and empathize with us? Do we really need these things to “feel” what we feel or do we just need the experience that they “get” us.

Humans have an innate habit of anthropomorphizing objects around them, especially those that move, grow, or talk to them. As technological advances enable robotics and IoT devices with greater intelligence, humans are likely to assign personality to more devices that they interact with in their daily life.

The vacuum cleaner, which was once a simple tool, is now a Roomba with a cheerfully clueless personality as it makes happy chimes and bumps its way through the living room. And while replacing a standard vacuum cleaner is no big deal, many Roomba users demand that they get their exact same robot back from repairs and that it not be “killed” and scrapped for parts. They view it almost as a part of the family.

Tools on the other hand, are replaceable. And the more an intelligent system or piece of hardware feels like a tool, the more replaceable it becomes. In Star Trek, the crew doesn’t spare a second thought about replacing and upgrading the ship computer, which speaks to them in a monotonous disembodied voice because they view it as a tool. However upgrades or maintenance of Commander Data, an android crewmember, bring substantial concern because his human shape and personality make him feel alive and relatable. Further, studies have shown that humans are more likely to forgive mistakes if they are coming from a device that they view as “alive” whereas they have no such leniency for things they view as tools.

How does this apply to our future? Logically, a company concerned about improving retention and engagement, assigning a device a strong personality seems like an obvious way to capitalize on human anthropomorphization, and grant you leeway on bugs, while boosting retention and engagement. However, the real challenge is choosing how much personality to inject.

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