When you’re lost, Siri can be your best friend. But if she can’t retrieve the right address from your contacts, she can drive you crazy.
And so it is with the legion of virtual personal assistants that are entering our lives. From Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s Home, people are busy talking to intelligent machines as never before.
It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of internet traffic is now generated by machine-to-machine, and person-to-machine, communication. IT advisory firm Gartner has predicted that by 2020 the average person will be having more conversations with robots than with their partner. (Sometimes we don’t even know we are doing it).
And just as texting changed written communication, talking bots could change the way we communicate with each other.
Talk is social
The late sociologist Diedre Boden wrote that human sociability is created through “talk, talk, talk and more talk”.
Talking person-to-person is not only how we exchange information, but also how we used to carry out many tasks, such as ordering pizzas, booking plane tickets and confirming meetings. And it’s these tasks that we are increasingly subcontracting to robots.
When we communicate face-to-face there is an expectation of mutual attentiveness, but these norms could be wholly deconstructed if we were to have the majority of our conversations with non-humans.
Unlike face-to-face talk, chatbots do not require us put effort into making the conversation polite or interesting. We don’t need to be charming, amusing, or assert our intelligence.
Bots don’t need to like us, even if we have a need to be liked. In fact, this would wildly complicate matters. A machine will simply extract the information it needs to create an appropriate response.
It is possible that talking to machines all the time could re-engineer the way we have conversations. We could end up with the linguistic equivalent of emojis. As an article in the New York Times recently put it, interacting with robots could “mean atrophy for our social muscles.” If they’re just machines, why bother with pleasantries?
The scientific research on this is still unclear.