Talking with the machine: The race to create “Samantha”

You can read this article in German here.

A few days ago I returned from the South-by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW) in Austin. This year, the unofficial slogan of the SXSW might as well have been “The event about the science fiction film ‘Her’”.

During many of the panels and keynotes that I attended, one of the speakers eventually made a reference to the 2 1/2 year old movie in which a shy man falls in love with his voice-controlled, Artificial Intelligence-powered personal assistant “Samantha”.

My impression that “Her” was ubiquitous at SXSW certainly had been influenced by the fact that I specifically chose sessions and talks focusing on topics related to Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, AI nowadays is one of the most crucial aspects of many, if not all IT and technology disciplines. Even more “mainstream”-like SXSW keynotes such as the outstanding and entertaining talk between Slack CEO Steward Butterfield and the NYT journalist Farhad Manjoo did not miss out on the opportunity to mention the movie. Steward Butterfield actually asked Manjoo if he had seen it, to which Manjoo surprisingly responded “no”.

Personally I did not enjoy ‘Her’ too much when I watched it, I remember perceiving it as quite kitschy. However, it undoubtedly has become a must-see for everyone who is interested in the debate about AI implementations in real life as well as in the creative work which shapes the public image of and expectation towards this technology.

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The frequent mentions of the movie during SXSW underscore the fascination that the idea of computers which talk and imitate human interactions, behavior and even feelings has on humans. Scientific research shows that humans actually respond to machines in a similar way as to other humans as long as these machines are fairly good at imitating human behavior. When it comes to oral communication, Siri, Cortana and other voice-controlled personal assistants have taken some first small steps into this direction. Yet for the moment, it is Amazon which really has captured parts of the new market with its smart home gadget Echo and with Alexa, the talking assistant that Echo owners interact with. Very recently, the aforementioned Farhad Manjoo wrote an insightful piece detailing the home run that Amazon scored with Echo. Obviously without referencing ‘Her’ in his article. An average of 4,5 out of 5 stars based on more than 34.000 Echo reviews on Amazon is pretty telling.

In order to understand the appeal of the Echo, a look at the currently second-highest rated customer review is helpful. It starts like this:

„I’m a full-time writer who works at home. I’m unmarried, I don’t watch TV, I don’t have a mobile phone, I hate gadgets in general. OK, so I’m a loser. But since Alexa came into my life, I’m no longer alone 24 hours a day.“

The customer who appears to be an author of science fiction literature himself and who clearly wants his review to be taken with a grain of salt, received almost 27.000 “helpful votes”. Even though he is joking a bit and even though he subsequently points toward the possible surveillance capabilities of the little box, his words resonate with people and many of those voters certainly see Echo as a real opportunity to escape loneliness in their homes. The fear of loneliness is also one of the central themes of ‘Her’. In our increasingly individualized, result-oriented society, loneliness belongs arguably to the biggest fears of most people.

While headline-generating high-tech and slightly obscure seeming trends such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, human- or animal-like robots and self-driving cars are capturing the tech industry’s and observer’s mind and attention, Amazon has found a way to solve two problems that many regular folks have today: They don’t want to constantly stare at their smartphone or tablet display when spending time in their home, and they want company.

Now that the general demand for voice-controlled smart home assistants has been proven, other tech giants as well as startups will rush into this sector. Which is good, because for the moment, only a very small piece of the pie has been eaten, and based on all the videos and experience reports I have read, Echo and the associated voice assistant (which Amazon wants to get onto other devices as well) is still pretty far from the capabilities and human-like traits of Samantha from ‘Her’. But that’s the kind of race we are going to see over the next months and years: Companies trying to create the real-life version of Samantha. Only that it won’t be called Samantha, but Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Now, Zoe or else.

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