What is a voice assistant

This theme explores questions around what such an assistant is, can be or is perceived as. Voice assistants, especially those within a stationary device, are a relatively new technology. As such they don’t have a very well established use case and the users are often not very sure what it actually is.

In my research, I differentiate between the device, which contains the electronics and the hardware, and the assistant, which is the software part, the person residing inside the device.

Before everything else; The sexist approach to voice assistants is highly problematic, to say the least. The first choice for the assistants’ voices was female. That says a lot more about this thing than the tech companies intended. Lately Google added different gendered voices and makes the initial choice random. But this deep-running problem in the tech industry made its way into the assistant as well.

Like with a stupid dog that doesn’t want to hear what I say. Sometimes it’s cool when it does, and then you think wow great, he did it! Good, good Alexa. And otherwise, I often just say “Alexa, you whore”. Just like that, just for a little bit, ah you stupid thing.

I don’t know where and when this dream of a personal assistant arose, but I guess it is intricately linked to advertisement and the advent of a middle class, which wishes of feeling further above in the social hierarchy got triggered by said ads. The voice assistant caters to an unsharp end, but according to the ads, it must involve having a simpler life. Shades of pastel, symbols of the creative class, or slogans of automated, optimized lives accompany the storytelling around the voice assistants.

The people I interviewed were often just curious to explore the possibilities. Only few go so far as to automate parts of the home. They got hooked by this reality turned scifi technology that many of us got to know from popular culture.

But what is then in the end, this assistant? There are more questions than answers to this. Is it entertainment? It is probably for those who use the assistant just for music. Is it a work-related item? Probably not, but optimizing your life, automating your environment, and offloading mental tasks surely sound like it comes for the world of work. The assistant can do almost everything a computer can do as well. In the end, it’s mostly an interface to the gigantic infrastructures of the tech companies, but those Questions of scale are lost within the daily interaction with the user. They rather just use it to listen to music.

For me is so, somehow, I do not want entertainment. I want technology that… an iPad is not entertainment for me. It’s a tool for me to work with and to do. Yeah, even VR glasses are not just, just entertainment. It’s kind of trying new things and not just entertainment. It’s way too passive then.

The Communication, Language and Behavior involved with the assistant is very close to the uncanny valley. Now and then, the assistant is weird, spooky, and sometimes right out creepy - starting to speak or laugh without former interaction, setting alarms in the night, or playing unstoppable music. The assistant is always present, listening in, ready to act. This presence hooks into our subconsciousness and if there was no interaction for a while, we need to check-in.

After a while of inactivity and not using the voice assistant: “Hey Google, are you still alive?”

The assistant promises a human form of communication to our electro-digital environment. Some users anthropomorphize the assistant, but never as an adult. Many more users are othering the assistant. They act in master-slave patterns, see in it a stupid dog, or even worse, throw sexist insults at it while kicking it. What was meant as a companion, to make life easier, brings out the worst in us? It promised to enable natural human-computer communication, but it’s all fake. We’re not getting anything human out of this, no matter how angry we get.

What are the stories underlying the design and use of technological artifacts? What are the values conveyed in these stories? Are there alternatives to these stories?