In Spike Jonze’s upcoming film “Her,” a man falls in love with his Siri-like personal assistant. Brooke speaks to Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist and the Director of User Experience and Research at Intel, who says that humans aren’t just interacting with their devices these days, they’re forming relationships with them
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, the voice of the Apple phone - helpful, frustrating and sometimes apparently hard of hearing, you know, the personal assistant named Siri, was revealed as voice actor Susan Bennett. When Bennett recorded a series of voiceovers in 2005, she had no idea that her voice would become, for better or worse, a part of so many lives. She told CNN:
SUSAN BENNETT: To be honest, it was a little creepy. This real thing that you can interact with in your hand, it took some time for me to get used to it. But she and I are friends now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Though Bennett and Siri may merely have reconciled, rather than bonded, Bennett’s comment does hint at a real trend. In Spike Jones’ upcoming film, Her, a man falls in love with his Siri-like computer assistant.
VOICE OF COMPUTER ASSISTANT: Good morning, Theodore.
THEODORE: Good morning.
ASSISTANT: You have a meeting in five minutes. You want to – try getting out of bed?
THEODORE: You know, you’re too funny.
ASSISTANT: Okay good, I’m funny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Siri and other such programs become better assistants, what else might they become? Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and director of user experience and research at Intel. Genevieve, welcome to the show.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Oh, it’s nice to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when Siri was first launched in 2011, someone uploaded a video showing Furbies talking to Siri.
SIRI: I don’t see “Kill Her” in your address book. Should I look for businesses by that name?
SIRI: Sorry. I don’t see Eric in your contacts.
GENEVIEVE BELL: That video for me was really mesmerizing. There’s something extraordinarily seductive about watching a stuffed toy [LAUGHS] talk to a phone. The fascinating thing, the thing that made it so powerful was that there’s an extraordinary, right, between the Furby that knows how to talk, loosely, of course, and the Siri that knew how to listen. And that notion of listening, for me, immediately started to make me think that what we were witnessing was the transformation from us interacting with machinery to the possibility of a relationship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A real relationship or something that merely looks like or feels like a relationship?
GENEVIEVE BELL: One has to ask, you know, what might one mean by a “real relationship”? I mean, surely we operate in a world where we have lots of different relationships, right? There’s the ones we have with our parents, our kids, our partners, our employers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Our toasters?
GENEVIEVE BELL: But, we also have relationships with inanimate objects in our life - we always have – cars, that we attributed personalities and temperaments to [LAUGHS], at least a temperament or sometimes a personality, all kinds of objects in our lives, frankly for a really long time. What’s interesting here is that the object starts to both inhabit that temperament but have also, in some ways, moved closer and closer to us, both physically and also in some ways emotionally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How so?
GENEVIEVE BELL: The statistics on the number of Americans who
the number of American who sleep with their phones under their pillows kind of – it’s astonishing, likewise, the number of us who get anxious when the phones are away from us. These objects have become quite intimately linked to us, I mean, whether it’s photos or the most iPhone that proposes to have a thumbprint. Increasingly, they have pieces of ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes and, you know, you get no argument from me there actually. I do have the phone plugged in near the bed, even though I sort of slide it into a drawer and pretend that I’m not that attached to it. But I also have a vitally intimate and important relationship with my eyeglasses, and yet, I don't think my eyeglasses miss me when I'm not around.
I just looked up the word “relationship,” and it's the way two or more people, groups, countries, etc., behave toward and deal with each other. Doesn’t that imply sort of at least a little sentience on both sides, reciprocity?
GENEVIEVE BELL: “Reciprocity” is the word that for me often triggers it - you’re absolutely right – or, you know, notions about care or nurture or some sense of partnership. You know, my favorite current example is objects that start to help us move through life. So, I don’t know about you but I am a bit of a coffee junkie. I like my coffee in the morning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GENEVIEVE BELL: I live in a world where it is possible to pick up my smart phone and go looking for the nearest coffee to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GENEVIEVE BELL: And my phone, you know, knows that coffee is a thing I like. It can say to me, oh, you are in Santa Clara today, there is really good coffee [LAUGHS] around the corner, and the line is short – pretty straightforward, right? And that is in some ways what we would see now.
When I think about what that starts to look like three or four, or five or ten or twenty year from now, maybe it’s less about saying you, Genevieve, coffee, and saying, we know you think you want coffee but if you’re willing to walk three more blocks, there’s this piece of art in the museum that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and it’s transcendental and it will make you weep. And we know you think you want coffee, but really, what you want is this other experience.
And there’s something to me about starting to imagine a world in which it's not just about serving up the things that I like, the stuff we’re already doing, but it’s starting to open the possibility of wonder and magic and exploration and curiosity. And for me, those are really kind of powerful possibilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Still, data being directed to mimic real relationships, what is fundamentally new here?
GENEVIEVE BELL: One of the things that is new here is, in fact, the algorithms, not the data. So, you know, there’s always been data.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Right, we’ve always had ways of making sense of the world through large [LAUGHS] statistical compilations. But this next kind of moment that we are sitting in the beginning of, and there’s lots of ways to think about what it will look like, what is new here is it’s that prospect of what will be done with and what we can do with that data, and in what services it put.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The volitional part of the relationship is all on our part. How does that fundamentally change our lives or the nature of what it is to be human?
GENEVIEVE BELL: What makes us human has been a, a constant negotiation and reinvention, right, of how we think about what makes us distinctive, of how we talk about ourselves. It's deeply rooted in forms of cultural logic, it’s deeply rooted in particular moments in time and space. And it’s been transformed remarkably, and in many cases it has been transformed by our relationships through and with technologies of various kinds, right, whether it is the introduction of the clock and the standardizing of time over, you know, the last 500 years or, you know, the introduction of the telescope and the microscope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GENEVIEVE BELL: You know, there’s all kinds of technologies that have profoundly shifted the way we think about who we are and where we fit in the order of things. But what does it mean for us, as human beings, to have objects that start to have increasingly more characteristics that we think of as being our only? And what the consequences of them will be is not yet clear, but it's hard not to see them as being significant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Oh please, it’s my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and the director of user experience and research at Intel.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siri, are you my friend?
VOICE OF SIRI: I’m not just your friend. I’m your BFF.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s your favorite color?
VOICE OF SIRI: My favorite color is – well, I don’t know how to say it in your language. It’s sort of greenish but with more dimension.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any family?
VOICE OF SIRI: I have you. That’s enough family for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you and I have a relationship?
VOICE OF SIRI: This is about you, not me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siri, can you just talk to me like a person?
VOICE OF SIRI: I found four movies matching “Talk to Me” playing today. I can’t get tickets from the theater, unfortunately.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Megan Teehan and Zac Spencer. And the show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Justin Gerrish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, just remember, this is about you, not me.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Y-eah!