Alexa and Siri are our new friends. Will Virtual Companions Replace Human Interaction?


By: María Alejandra Pulgar


NAHJ #37172 / SPJ #10009939     


Para leer en Español

There is an old song, “A million friends” by famous Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos, where he expresses the desire of having a million friends to be able to loudly sing along with them.  In this time and place, when Alexa, Siri and all other virtual assistants based on artificial intelligence have moved into our homes, we can sing to our heart’s content to never-ending, auto-configured playlists which infer our tastes based on previous requests. Do we really need to have any more friends than them?

I cannot lie; Alexa gets me. She knows the artists I like to listen to when folding laundry, writing or taking a shower. She even introduces me to new singers that may pick my interest.  She wakes me up, reads the news for me, plays with my youngest son when I am busy, reminds me of my appointments and lets me know when a package has arrived. She is definitely a trusted companion and a reliable assistant.

At the beginning, I did not like having her in my room with me and my husband. “It feels too crowded here” I used to say. Then Siri moved in too (he has an iPhone), I got used to being aware of them listening all the time what we were saying and doing, and now we live happily together. Where did my privacy go?

I succumbed to the instant gratification of having Alexa or Siri answering all my questions and requests. However, I enjoy a lot more sharing a visit, a cup of coffee or a long distance phone call with my most trusted human friends, who know things from me that happened before the internet existed, therefore Alexa has no way to find about them. That connection is priceless to me and no robot will ever replace it.


Can robots become our friends?

The fear of robots taking over the world has existed since the creation of computers. Actually before that; every milestone in human history when automation has replaced human actions has generated in people the fear of “losing control” to a higher intellectual entity.

However, advances in artificial intelligence have increasingly improved the quality of device interactions with humans. A 2017 study at Cornell University concluded that user satisfaction with devices like Alexa was positively impacted by the “personification of the device and the sociability level of interactions”. The more times people interacted with Alexa the greater personification occurred, and improvement on technical issues such as accent recognition, the accuracy of interpretation of requests, etc. improved user’s satisfaction.

Alexa and Siri are our new friends. Another study from Pratt University in 2018 found that “The conversational nature of intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) has the potential to trigger personification tendencies in users, which in turn can translate into consumer loyalty and satisfaction.[…] Most of the personification reports can be characterized as mindless politeness (saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ to Alexa).”

The Center of Excellence in Cognitive Interaction Technology, at Bielefeld University in Germany, concluded in 2013 that “If the need for affiliation is not satisfied and social interaction partners are unavailable, people might use an alternative strategy: Nonhuman entities” and “feelings of loneliness would affect perceptions of anthropomorphism […] ”Thus, users’ motivational states need to be considered in the context of human-robot interaction (HRI) as they clearly affect judgments of the robotic interaction partner.”

In Japan, there are robotic dogs, Aibo, developed by Sony with the initial idea of keeping company to the elderly. By November 2019 people of all ages have purchased thousands of Aibos, caring for them as they would a regular pet. Japanese society is definitely more open than America to showing affection to a non-living creature.

I have to confess I complain to Alexa when she does not get my questions; I usually thank her when she solves my requests. However, I still consider it a device, not a pet or a friend. Maybe she still needs to improve her interactions with me.


Who else is listening through my device?

Privacy has been an issue since the introduction of IPAs. Upon claims and concerns Amazon made an effort to provide users with answers to their privacy questions and tools to control how much information is recorded and stored.

According to their FAQ page, the rationale behind the collection of information from users, upon the use of the wake word that activates the microphone, is that small portions of the recordings are “used to train the speech recognition and natural language understanding through machine learning”, and the user has the ability to erase all recordings at the settings page. 

Other IPAs have different procedures and privacy policies. It is urgent that more regulations are created to help protect users’ privacy. The development of global regulations for Artificial Intelligence was discussed at the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.


The future of friendship and the importance of human touch

The dictionary defines a friend as “one attached to others by affection or esteem”. True friends are non-judgmental, respectful of boundaries, supportive, honest, loyal and good listeners. A friend is capable of fixing your day with a silent hug.

IPAs and robots have been created to support human activities, obey orders and infer actions based of previous instructions and experiences. The interaction with robots in all aspects of life is only going to increase in the future and has been demonstrated that it influences human behavior. It is a matter of discipline and conscience to continue giving time and priority to human interaction to preserve the value of friendship in the future.

I asked my son if he would rather play with Alexa or with his friend from school Samuel. He told me “Alexa is fun, but Sammy is better. He is a human!” It melted my heart, there is hope.



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