Ok Google, Tell Me About Yourself

Building Machines with Personality

One in four people name their vehicles. In fact, my King Ranch is named Kinsey and she replaced my old Tiburon named Tina. We have been great friends ever since I brought her home from the car lot a few years ago, and by all means, why not? She’s reliable, fun to be with, and takes good care of me and my family whenever we drive across Texas. That is – however – pretty much the full extent of the anthropomorphic relationship that we have built. She is, after all, still a vehicle.

As the world moves gradually more towards a virtually-assisted environment where consumers are naturally comfortable engaging in somewhat natural dialog with machines, software developers and product managers everywhere are wondering whether it is important that these interactions require a digital personality. Digital assistants like Siri and Alexa have made very conscious decisions from the initial releases to include personality into their technology. In fact, part of the digital brands’ reach comes from consumers’ fascination with these virtual agents views on the world. Google, however, has historically refused to build personality into its voice agents – until recently.

Just last year, Google made a key hire in a former Pixar storyboard artist named Emma Coats, whose new role in the Google-plex is specifically focused on developing and driving the personality behind their voice assistant Ok Google. As she works to bring her story-telling background to one of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence systems, she is also helping to define Google’s own unique strategic stance on design in this realm – such as her believe that AI should play the role of the sidekick versus the lead character, or as she puts it “Slinky Dog, not Buzz or Woody.”

Moving from Search Queries to Conversations

Google’s strategic hire is interesting after taking continued criticism for years over its neutral stance on digital personality. But why is it so critical now? What has changed? Google’s promise to its shareholders has always been to continually drive the development of human-computer interaction with regard to the tasks of information retrieval in whatever ways will lead to its continued profit and dominance of the search market overall. So when the search giant makes such a large move, something must be changing in the landscape as a whole.

This is not the first time Google has had to overcome consumer adoption. In fact, if we remember back to when Google first entered the digital world as a “better search engine,” it was still at a time when consumers everywhere were just being exposed to the Internet for the first time. Google’s clean aesthetic stood in stark contrast to the clutter and energy of competitors like Lycos, GoTo, and others. In fact, the service even forced us to learn a new “pseudo” language of keywords to drive the best results. This stood in stark contrast to competitors like AskJeeves that encouraged users (who were new to the entire concept of a “web page”, let alone a search engine to navigate to those pages) to ask questions in natural language – as if they were asking their local librarian or village sage. Fortunately for Google, not only was the technology for parsing and understanding natural language not advanced enough but consumers’ own expectations of the types of information to look for and inquire about were just not that advanced either.

And thus, Google trained us to use keywords and rewards us daily with relevant content at our fingertips. This has led to its dominance and control over the search experience for billions of people everyday; however, that control is in jeopardy as the voice-assistant landscape evolves.

The Role of the Doodle

Google has employed a Chief Doodler as early in its history as 2000, when Page and Brin appointed an intern Dennis Hwang after a successfully received Doodle for Bastille day. Ever since then, the Doodle has brought a degree of “humanity” to what could very much be one of the coldest daily human-computer interactions in our modern society. The Doodle has such a massive impact on how the search engine is integrated into our lives – in fact, it can even cost the economy millions of dollars when it is “too much fun.”

The fact that Emma’s role reports officially into Doodle team says something quite profound about how the search giant is thinking about the strategic nature of personality with regard to its voice technology. The Doodle team has helped make Google a warm, approachable brand in our hearts, and I imagine Emma’s job description and mandate are nothing short of attempting to do the same for Google’s voice AI’s perception. In a world where Google (and many others) are starting to recognize the potential impact of search queries moving to dialogs, this decision reminds us that only the market can ultimately decide how it wants to embrace new technologies.

Can Personality Win the Voice Wars?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the coming Voice Wars between two giants of digital commerce: Google and Amazon. With Amazon’s impending release of a paid marketplace for voice-based product queries, an open question still stands as to how profits will shift as search power moves out of the Google sandbox and into new devices and modalities. Since then, Google has made some major moves by releasing its own open integrations with existing retailers – following a similar strategy to its existing dominance over paid ecommerce traffic. This move marks a stern difference in strategy between the two firms that only the market can answer: do customers value variety of retail providers or do they value price and convenience within a close Amazon ecosystem?

Perhaps Google is making a bet with Emma’s position and role that personality will help provide a competitive advantage as consumers make their decisions with their voice and wallet. Personally, I think the real answer will only arise as search technology evolves to support true interactive dialogues. The movement towards bots in the past year has shone a light on just how far we still have to go in creating real conversational value between humans and artificial intelligence. Both Amazon and Google have a rich history and strong technical chops with regard to innovating around the product search and discovery process, so I believe there’s still a great deal of growth ahead of us. Whether personality will play a critical role – or just be a movie side-kick – is still to be seen.