In 2013 Spike Jonze released a daring and fascinating movie called Her, set in an indeterminate future in which Theodore Twombly, ably played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with the operating system on his phone, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who goes by the name Samantha.
According to recent research undertaken by Mindshare and J. Walter Thompson, a surprising number of smartphone users fantasize about just such a relationship. The report, which is titled “Speak Easy: The Future Answers to You” (does it?), covers a wide array of research into user attitudes about speech recognition and natural language processing with a focus on voice hardware products such as the Amazon Echo.
In a section called “Craving Intimacy,” the report looks at the desire of users to have a “deeper connection” with their “voice assistants.” A majority of users (60%) understandably affirmed that vastly improved comprehension on the part of the devices would greatly increase the propensity to use it.
This rapidly becomes a tricky area, the report’s authors point out, because as the abilities of the voice assistants and the integration of services increase, the potential for fraud or abuse also increases dramatically, which means that the services require a significant degree of trust—and trust is an inherently emotional aspect of human life that also requires a willingness to be vulnerable. As one focus group member said, “You can build trust by, hopefully, making sure no one’s ripped off while giving them access to do amazing things.”
Is it any wonder, then, that some users have started to fantasize about a sexual relationship with Siri or Alexa? Not surprisingly, according to neuroscience experiments discussed in the report, “the emotional response to voice assistants is considerably lower than for both a face-to-face human interaction and a touch or text interface,” which is chalked up to the “rudimentary personalities” of Alexa or Siri, but users’ comfort level with their assistants increased with the benefit of further exposure and familiarity with them.
And where familiarity and comfort go, intimacy and sex cannot be far behind:
Over a third (37%) of regular voice technology users say that they love their voice assistant so much that they wish it were a real person. Even more astonishing is that more than a quarter of regular voice technology users say they have had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistant.
To be precise, “26% of regular voice tech users say they have had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistant.”
In October, the Telegraph reported that personal voice assistants were frequently being used by “some men” who wanted to “talk dirty.” Ilya Eckstein, chief executive of Robin Labs, a company in the UK, noted that the behavior was seen most often in “teenagers and truckers without girlfriends”:
This happens because people are lonely and bored…. It is a symptom of our society. As well as the people who want to talk dirty, there are men who want a deeper sort of relationship or companionship.
Eckstein also stated that such people “want to flirt, they want to dream about a subservient girlfriend, or even a sexual slave.”
A woman tasked with working on that Microsoft’s Cortana product has said that “a good chunk of the volume of early-on inquiries” addressed the voice assistant’s sex life.