Flash Exchange with Dr. Debbie Dahl: On ‘Friendly’ Voicebots

Ahmed Bouzid: I posted the following for this month’s Sonic Voices Multicast, which triggered this quick exchange between Dr. Deborah Dahl and myself over email.

First, the post and then the exchange.

Dr. Deborah Dahl: I loved your post and I agree 100%. I would add that an overly friendly bot is not terribly different from an overly friendly human customer service agent, which is also pretty annoying. So the overly friendly bot is modeled after a bad (in my opinion) human-human user experience.

Ahmed Bouzid: Interesting… Maybe this is about authenticity. You’re a bot – so behave like one. You are a human engaging with me transactionally, so don’t pretend that this is not transactional…. (On the latter, I’d add that it is possible to successfully engage in a relational and non-purely transactional way, but in a subtle way — and not everyone (on both sides) can do that… Cashier gives you a knowing smile and says, ‘Love your cap,’ but then leaves it at that, so the little touch, because it is little, adds to the authenticity of the interaction….)

Dr. Deborah Dahl: That’s very well put – don’t pretend that our interaction isn’t transactional, but it’s not bad to make a quick personal comment like your example. However, I think that a comment like “I like your hat” coming from a bot (even assuming that it had a camera and could see my hat) would really be annoying or even creepy.

Ahmed Bouzid: Totally agree. The subtle comment from the human is a way of saying, ‘You and I both share the value that humans are never mere means but also ends in themselves, even in purely transactional interactions,’ which makes the interaction even more authentic (vs. pretending that it is a totally and purely transactional interaction, which it cannot be, since humans are involved). Usually a smile and brief eye contact will do it, and it does bother me when, for instance, a cashier is completely transactional: a mechanical hello, no eye contact, no smiling, a mechanical thank you and handing the ticket without looking at me, etc. With the bot, there should be no nod to that mutual recognition that we are not mere tools, because the voicebot is indeed a pure tool that I want to use. Sending signals that are used by humans to acknowledge mutual humanity is just a category mistake….

Dr. Deborah Dahl: This is a great analysis, and it also points out the incredible complexity and subtlety of human-human interactions – even transactional ones, let alone relationships like friendship. Thinking that you can effectively imitate real human-human relationships with technology is pretty arrogant, so let’s just use the bots for what they can do best, help us solve problems.

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