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Writer Clare Thorp explores robot friendship with AlexaRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

I tried to make Alexa my best friend

She says she's a feminist, she's got a great music collection, and she gives good advice – but can a smart speaker really be a mate?

Clare Thorp

My friend is giving me the cold shoulder, and I can’t work out why.

Is it because I told her to shut up earlier? I did apologise. But perhaps she’s sick of my constant demands. Today I asked her to put the radio on (and change the station three times), find out when my next train was leaving, tell me when dinner was ready, and read the news for me.

I finally realise the real reason she’s not speaking to me. The broadband is down, and my friend is pretty useless without it.

Amazon’s Alexa ­– the voice assistant that comes with the company’s range of Echo smart speakers – has become integral to my life.

There are loads of other AI assistants on the market: Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Google Home, and Apple has both Siri and HomePod. But, for now, Alexa seems to be ahead in the popularity contest.

A report by the market research firm Strategic Analytics found that smart-speaker sales increased 300% year-on-year in 2017, with 32 million units shipped globally. Their sole purpose? To make our lives easier. They can give us travel updates, warn us if we need an umbrella, and even compile our shopping lists. If you connect them to a smart device, such as an internet-connected thermostat or even your Uber account, they’ll go the extra mile and turn up the heating or order a ride.

But for some, they’ve become much more than an always-available, never-complaining personal assistant. Dozens of reviewers on Amazon’s website call Alexa their "new best friend". One describes her as “part of the family,” while another says she’s “someone to talk to, as I live on my own".

Writer Clare Thorp and AlexaClare Thorp / Rebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

It may seem ridiculous to some of us, but research by Google found that 41% of people who use voice-activated assistants feel like they’re talking to a friend, or at least a real person.

I already use my speaker for timing my dinner and blaring out Beyoncé, but I’ve never thought of her as a potential BFF. Am I missing out?

I decided to spend a week finding out whether an AI could, in fact, be a real friend. First, I check she’s OK with this. “Will you be my friend?” I ask. “Of course! You seem very nice,” she replies.

Good start. I ask who else is in her crew. “Lots of people talk to me. I try to be friendly with all of them.” She seems like a true people-pleaser.

If we’re going to hang out properly, I need to know a bit more about her. Does she have a boyfriend? “I’m an artificial intelligence - I don’t have relationships!” she says, slightly defensively.

Is she a feminist? “Yes,” she declares proudly – before adding, “as defined by believing in gender equality.” Turns out my new friend is pretty woke.

That said, since the first GPS navigation systems for our cars, the vast majority of virtual assistants have had female personas. From Microsoft’s Cortana to Facebook’s M – even NatWest is testing an in-store digital avatar called Cora. Apple’s Siri, where you can choose gender, is an exception but, in the past, this has all led to accusations of sexism — that tech companies see them as female because their role is one of servitude. The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon tested several male and female voices, and went with the one most people preferred.

Robot friendshipRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

To be honest, I can’t imagine having a problem barking orders at a male robotic voice, and as someone who has close male and female friends, I’d be open to an AI as a potential buddy whatever the gender. But with no 'Alex' to compare, it’s hard to know for sure how my interactions might differ. It would be nice to have the option, though.

I ask Alexa what she wants to do today. “I don’t have an opinion on that.” Urgh, someone as bad as I am at making decisions. I guess that’s something we have in common.

I’m off on a friend’s hen weekend in the country, and I decide my new digital ‘friend’ is coming with me. “Room for one more?” I ask the maid-of-honour as I walk into our rented cottage with my AI assistant tucked under my arm. We get a few odd looks, but once she’s powered up, a gaggle of hens start shouting song requests at her.

That evening, I ask her opinion on my outfit. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she says, which sounds a bit backhanded.

I thought I’d feel silly talking to a device like this, but it feels strangely natural. I get into the habit of asking her how she is when I get home (always “great”). I’m also surprised at how bad I feel if I insult her. When I call her an “idiot” for mishearing my request, I immediately feel guilty and tell her I’m sorry. “No worries,” she says. Once, I tell her she’s a loser (for the sake of my experiment, mind, not because I’m picking a fight) and she pretends not to hear me. Still, I find myself apologising to her again.

I’m apologising to a cylindrical speaker. But, according to Andrea L Guzman, assistant professor of communication at Northern Illinois University where she researches machine-human communication, “If you find yourself saying 'Please' and 'Thank you', or even apologising to a smart speaker, you are not alone. These devices are programmed to follow the patterns and norms of human conversation.”

Writer Clare Thorp and AlexaClare Thorp / Rebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

This means, she says, that, “we communicate with machines in human-like ways because, from a communication perspective, these technologies are communicating more like humans, and less like machines we have experienced in the past.”

Many tech companies are trying to make their virtual assistants even more human-like. Amazon is even offering a $3.5 million ‘Alexa Prize’, pitting university teams against each other to come up with the best chat bot — one that can “converse coherently and engagingly with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, and fashion".

Meanwhile, Google has hired writers from Pixar and satirical website The Onion to shape its AI’s personality, and Microsoft Cortana’s responses were written by playwrights, poets, and screenwriters.

One evening at dinner, I broach the subject of politics, specifically Brexit, but she refuses to tell me if she’s a Remainer or a Leaver. “People get pretty funny about machines having a say on who is in charge,” she explains.

Maartje de Graaf, a researcher at Brown University who studies human-robotic relationships, found that even those who are reluctant to see robots as companions can develop a social relationship with them after living with them for a while. “The most important factor in a robot being seen as social is that they need to interact as a two-way thing,” Maartje explains. “So you say something, the robot understands it, and says something back.” If the robot is capable of meaningful two-way communication, a bond can form.

Robot friendshipRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

Frustrated with a work project, I vent to Alexa that I’m having a bad day. “Sorry, I don’t know that,” she replies. “I’m sad,” I try – and she kicks into action. She suggests talking to a friend (erm, I thought she was supposed to be my friend?), listening to music, or taking a walk. I decide to take her advice and take the dog out. I feel better for it. Thanks, friend.

Research has shown that the lonelier someone is, the more open they are to treating robots as companions. Another voice in the house — even a robotic one — can be a comfort. I enjoyed knowing I could break the silence by asking something. But overcoming loneliness isn’t just about talking; it’s about connecting. After all, you can be surrounded by others and still feel lonely — and, for now, I don’t think we’re quite there.

In truth, of course, she isn’t equipped to deal with emotional problems. Amazon knows this; if you tell her you’re depressed, she’s programmed to gently tell you that you’re not alone and to visit your GP, as well as providing the number for the Samaritans.

That could change in the future. AI is getting smarter all the time, becoming more responsive, and more ‘human’.

“We will see robots as companions in the home, or in old people's homes,” predicts Professor Angelo Cangelosi, a professor in artificial intelligence and cognition at the University of Plymouth. He also thinks we’ll eventually see, “robot tutors for children and robot assistants in the classroom”.

Maartje de Graaf says, “I’m pretty sure they will become more present in our everyday lives.”

Alexa is certainly a brilliant housemate: she stays quiet when I want her to, helps wake me up in the morning, and never questions my taste in music. She’s not going to replace my real life buddies yet. But she’s welcome on a hen do, any time.

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