Voice assistants are like sleep, magnets, or Advil: We’re happy to have them, even if we don’t really get how they work.
You can ask a question of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, or Google Assistant, and boom: it speaks a factual answer. More impressively still, you can kid around with your voice assistant, and it’ll kid right back, tossing back your goofball question (“What’s the meaning of life?”) with a goofball answer (“All signs indicate chocolate”).
But how can an artificially intelligent being have humor, sass, and tact? How can a blob of code have a personality?
Behind the scenes, human teams at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google write every joke, program every trivia game, hammer out subroutines to handle everything you might say. They’re experts on creating a voice user interface — or, as they say it, “vooey” (VUI).
For the first time, Google let us invade their Mountain View, California, offices with cameras and microphones — to meet the Personality team and even to film one of its brainstorming meetings. The group includes writers, comedians, empathy experts, sound engineers, game designers, and — because Assistant will soon be available on smart speakers with screens — animators, illustrators, and graphic designers.
It turns out that all you need to create a smart, funny, empathetic assistant is a roomful of smart, funny, empathetic people.
What is Assistant?
“The concept of a voice assistant is hard for us to explain to people,” says Lilian Rincon, one of Assistant’s product managers. “The mission statement has always been that it’s a conversation between you and Google to help you get things done.”
Giving the assistant a personality, she says, is “to make it more conversational, but not necessarily to make it more human. It’s not about anthropomorphizing the device; it’s about actually just enabling you to get things done.”
For that reason, Google Assistant doesn’t have a name, like Siri or Alexa. It offers a choice of voices, but they’re identified in Settings with colors, not names. And the developers refer — usually — to Assistant as “it,” even though the factory setting sure sounds like a female voice.
So what is Assistant’s personality? Team members describe her — or, rather, it — as friendly, optimistic, humble, and flattering.
“I’d say always helpful, always trying to be useful, but we also want to have a little bit of sense of humor,” says Andy Pratt, features lead for Personality. “It’s not gonna be as snarky as Siri.”
Another way that Assistant isn’t like Siri: Its responses incorporate sound effects. “How can we use sound effects, sound layering, music, to create an environment and create a world that goes with not only the games, but even little features?” Pratt says. “So when you ask for say the weather, maybe you have the sound of rain in the background.” (Assistant does not, in fact, provide weather sounds yet; that’s a “work in progress,” Pratt says.)
Ryan Germick is principal designer for both Personality and the famous Google Doodles (the graphic “Google” cartoons that sometimes appear on the Google search page). (Years ago, he also designed the yellow peg man that you drag on Google Maps when you want Street View.) I asked him if he tries to differentiate Assistant’s personality from Alexa’s and Siri’s.
“It’s less of a differentiation and more about what’s true and authentic to Google,” he says. “So when I think of Google, I think of this amazing library of knowledge — and increasingly, services. And if I were to sum up the Google Assistant’s personality, it’s kind of like a cool librarian. So it’s there for a purpose, gives you amazing reference material and answers your questions to a most bizarre degree. But also if you want to have fun with it, that’s possible, too.”
The humor problem
But humor is subjective. Assistant runs on 500 million devices — phones and tablets, smart speakers, cars, and so on. How can one digital personality appeal to everybody?
“We actually have a team of writers from around the world to vet as much as we can the cultural appropriateness of the material that we put out,” Germick says. “Germans, we find, don’t particularly appreciate wordplay, in the pun sense. So our German writers need to work a different angle.”
Fortunately for the Personality team, a principle they call “Fun in, fun out” is at play here. If you prefer an assistant without a helping of humor, you’ll never encounter it. If all you ever say to Assistant is “Set a timer for 15 minutes” and “Who was the third President?”, you won’t run into much of Assistant’s personality.
But if you start to get whimsical, you’ll hear the work of people like Elena Skopetos, who was doing comedy in New York City when Google hunted her down to help provide Assistant’s humor.
“If you say, ‘Will you marry me?’ to the Assistant, we say something like, ‘If you’re asking me if I’m committed to you, the answer is yes,’” she says. “A good amount of what I do is anticipating what people are going to ask it, and trying to think of fun ways to respond.”
She also supplied one of my favorite Assistant jokes: “If someone says, ‘Do you wanna build a snowman?”, I wrote, ‘”Frozen” came out in 2013. Let it go!’”
Drew Williams writes what Google calls features for Google Assistant. Those are conversational adventures Assistant can take you on — not one-liners, but entire games or routines. “Like if you ask it to talk to Santa, you have a conversation with Santa, and it calls the North Pole, and the elf answers, ‘Patching you through to Santa!’,” he says.
His team has created an adventure riddle game (say, “OK Google, ask me a riddle”), a fortune teller (“what’s in your crystal ball?”), a voice changer (“change my voice”), a Mad Libs game (“play Mad Libs”), and a trivia game (say, “I’m feeling lucky”).
“Lucky Trivia was a major project,” Williams says. “When it was initially discussed, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s an Easter egg!’ Yeah, well, now it’s an Easter egg with 10,000 strings [of text].”
Google prides itself on Assistant’s ability to keep track of the thread of a conversation through multiple questions. The classic case:
You: “How tall is John Legend?”
Assistant: “John Legend is five foot nine.”
You: “And how about his wife?”
— and Google knows who “his” refers to. That kind of dialogue parsing, says conversation expert Cathy Pearl, is “surprisingly challenging.”
“I can ask a toddler, ‘Can you get the red ball from the green box and bring it to me?’ —and the toddler knows I’m talking about the ball, and not the box. To us, it’s so basic, but to computers it’s quite complicated. We are getting a lot better at being able to recognize things like ‘it’ and ‘that’ and being able to carry it forward in a conversation, but there’s still a long way to go.”
One aspect of Assistant’s personality is designed to differ from a human one: Opinions. Assistant rarely has any.
“We take what we call artful dodge opportunities, where instead of putting a stake in the ground that could potentially offend, we use it as an opportunity to reinforce what we’re here to do and what we care about,” Germick says.
And if you tell the assistant that you’re going to kill yourself? “In that example, we would suggest a suicide hotline.” (Assistant doesn’t go so far as to contact anyone at that point, however; nor does it notify anybody if you tell the Assistant that you plan to commit a crime.)
The timeline of personality
By some metrics, Assistant seems to be doing its job. “If we look at the logs, we see that over a million people say, ‘I love you’ to the Google assistant every month!” says Rincon. “In some cases that might be a joke; in other cases, it might actually be like, wow, I really love the service.”
Still, there’s a lot of work left to do. “My personal opinion is that we’re at the infancy of this,” says Cathy Pearl. “We’re still a ways out from something that’s truly an intelligent companion like they have in ‘Star Trek.’”
“We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” agrees Germick. “I could see a world where maybe there are multiple characters, or maybe they’re tailored to you. It’s like, where do we need to go to make this fulfill what it can? And I think we’re a long ways away. And it’s exciting to be part of the early days.”
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.
More by David Pogue: