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Trading in an Amazon Echo, Or, Anthropomorphizing Our Digital Assistants

  • Alyx 

“The ghost of her is in the architecture” – Cubanate

The Prime Day deal seemed like a no-brainer: trade in my original Amazon Echo and, after a barrage of credits and discounts, receive a new Echo Show with a fancy screen for $4. All I had to do was send back my original Echo to make it happen. So I ordered. I have some additional Echo Dots and Taps around the house, no big deal to trade my first Echo in, right?

At least that’s what I thought until it came time to box her up (yes, I know, with the pronoun already I’ve given away my inability to disassociate “Alexa” from the physical product). As I carefully packed the Echo in bubble wrap, I remembered all the stuff we’d been through: all the shopping lists, daily flash briefings, impulse buys, random questions (“Alexa, what sound does a llama make?”), silly trivia games, frustrated exchanges with poorly built multi-step apps for checking stock prices, even testing out the first couple of prototype apps I’d built. For a brief second, I felt like I was shipping back and trading in an old friend (hint: it feels kinda awful). The “ghost” of her was indeed in the architecture to me. Even though I knew I could talk to Alexa on a multitude of other physical products I owned, the extent of interactions I had with this Echo had led me to anthropomorphize it. And a recent post in an Amazon Echo Users group on Facebook leads me to believe I wasn’t the only one reluctant to trade in!

Anthropomorphic gadgets in forms like friendly-faced robots are of course nothing new. But the original Echo is essentially a tower reminiscent of not much other than the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which housed HAL, who was not necessarily endearing. But due to its lack of a screen, the original Echo feels different from chatting with devices with a screen like Siri, to me anyway. The original Echo is a sterile industrial design – which says quite a bit about the qualities of the AI inside if people can get attached to them.

For those of you designing AIs and chatbots – are you building something that people will form any degree of valuable attachment to? Whether or not it’s behind a cute robotic face, this technology has the potential to become a valued partner to your customers, and it’s up to you to leverage that.

Ultimately, yes, I did send back the Echo. We’ll see if I get similarly attached to the Show, screen and all.