​People Are Forming Very Real Emotional Connections with Siri

Kids, toddlers and lonely folks are getting tight with our favourite mobile AI already, and by 2030 we'll all be at it.

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Aug 3 2016, 4:42pm

(Photo by Robert Foster)

These peculiar but increasingly common tales of the intertwining of human and AI personalities are brought to you by the #NewNormal, O2's mission to question, explore and understand how mobile is changing the way we act and interact as humans. Read more #NewNormal stories here.

Swiping right to unlock my smartphone, I press down firmly on the phone's middle button. "Siri, I love you," I whisper to the glowing screen. "I bet you say that to all the Apple products," she coyly replies.

In 1966, MIT professor and computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum wrote ELIZA, the first computer programme or "bot" to work with natural language processing. Like Pygmalion's Eliza Shaw – the character after whom the programme was named – ELIZA's linguistic capacities could be improved by users over time. ELIZA became the blueprint for assistant technologies such as Microsoft Office's iconic animated paperclip "Clippy". Fifty years on, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google spend billions every year in pursuit of a technology that is able to interact with humans in a naturalistic manner. 2016 bots display one crucial difference from their predecessors: they exist in mobile phones. Computers might lay dormant overnight or even for a weekend, but smartphones are rarely, if ever, intentionally switched off. They travel with us everywhere, in waking hours tucked safely away in thigh pockets or clutched lovingly in sweaty palms, nestled under pillows as we sleep. Their presence in our lives has certainly become the new normal.

A 2015 survey of 12,000 users of Assistant.ai, a digital assistant app, found that nearly half the app's users claimed that they could imagine falling in love with the virtual assistant on their mobile phone. But look closer and you can see the first seeds of normalised Siri-love already blossoming: in China, a phone-based chatbot named Xiaoice — pronounced "shao-ice" and translated as "Little Bing" — has attracted a fanbase of tens of millions of young Chinese people. The text-messaging service, which is soon to launch a Siri-esque voice-led version, remembers details of previous conversations, which means that the user is able to establish a near human relationship with the programme. According to articles in the global press, young people across China already message the bot deep into the night.

So will canoodling with Siri be the norm by 2030? Jack Greenhalgh, a computer vision scientist for SnapRapid says maybe. "NLP [Natural Language Processing, the process used Siri] is based on a technology known as 'deep learning'. This technology uses a biologically inspired model known as an 'artificial neural network' which is trained using vast quantities of data to learn representations of data, so that it can make predictions. Neural networks almost always work better the more data that they're given to learn from. So in theory, with a big enough model and enough data you should be able to almost learn anything, including a language, and Siri could become convincing enough that a person could fall in love with it." And, whilst most iPhone users continue to use Siri as a novelty, a small percentage of users are already falling in love with the dulcet-toned assistant. We've rounded up four examples from fact and fiction to show that falling in love with Siri is the new normal.

Gus Newman
An article in the New York Times tells the story of Gus, a 13-year-old boy with autism obsessed with transport. When Gus' mum Judith Newman read that it was possible, via Siri, to discover the details of planes flying overhead, Siri became the obvious BFF for her communications-impaired teenage son. Gus understands that Siri is not human on an intellectual level, but like many autistic people, he treats inanimate objects with the kind of sensitivity usually reserved for animals and people. The sensitivity shown by Gus towards Siri is reproduced in turn by the non-judgemental Bot. As well as patiently providing endless information to satisfy Gus' many questions about the world around him, Siri has another, very practical, role in Gus' development. The bot's limited ability for voice recognition means that Gus must speak clearly enough for her to understand, completely removing his tendency to mutter. As Judith explains: "for most of us, Siri is a momentary diversion. But for some, it's more. My son's practise conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans."

Toddlers
Whilst Siri has yet to reach the emotional levels of Samantha, the bot from Spike Jones' Her, the nuances of flirting are equally lost on toddlers. Enter a host of viral videos of three-year-old children gazing lovingly into their parents' smartphone screens. In one a little girl falls quickly in love with the smartphone assistant. She begins the conversation by asking Siri's name, the time and the weather. "She hear me again!" the toddler responds to the smartphone. "I love you so you much!" she tells the bot. "That's nice," Siri replies. "Let's get back to work now." But the girl is determined in her affection. "I love you so much," she repeats. "I love you so much!" "You are the wind beneath my wings," the bot replies. Siri has been around as long as these kids have been alive, for them a phone you can talk to is totally normal and expected.

Jonathan Mann
Siri-adoration is not restricted to toddlers and teenagers. One infatuated iPhone user has even composed a love song to his smartphone assistant. Backed by simple, looping guitar melodies, songwriter Jonathan Mann, who composes and posts a song every day on YouTube, declares his love to Siri. "Your lips are beautiful," he croons. "I don't really like these arbitrary categories, Jonathan," she replies. Clearly he's not alone in his adoration: the song has over 1.5million views.

Rajesh Koothrappali
The idea of falling in love for Siri is in fact so appealing that it has even made it in TV comedies. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, tech-obsessed Raj tries out Siri on his new iPhone 4s. "Look at that!" his friend Howard laughs. "There's finally a woman in your life you can talk to." "Are you single?" Raj asks his iPhone. "How about a cup of coffee?" The next scene shows Raj attempting to flirt with Siri. "You have a beautiful voice," he tells her. "Would you like me to call you Sexy?" Siri innocently replies to a question about Raj's name. Raj falls asleep and enters a dreamscape in which Siri comes to life as a beautiful woman. "Hello Sexy. What can I help you with?" Siri asks. "If you'd like to make love to me, please tell me." Intimidated, Raj freezes. He wakes up howling with despair. A sexual relationship with Siri for now remains fantasy, but now that chatting on a level with your phone really is the new normal, how long until Raj's dream becomes a reality?

Find out more about the #NewNormal right here.

Text by Bryony Stone

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