The soft power of technology: Why machines can't work without the human touch



“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”


The cold, monotone delivery of HAL9000 in the Kubrick classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey is terrifying because it taps into a very real fear for both the technophobic and technophilic. Computers, robots and AI are unfeeling; they don’t care about us weak, emotional humans. If they decide to turn, they will do so without mercy. It’s why the robo-Judas is such a classic sci-fi trope.


These days it’s not so sci-fi any more. Robots are a reality. Google’s DeepMind AI has beaten our best player at the ancient and deeply complex game of Go. Cars now drive themselves. We talk to our houses, and they talk back. Computers control our reading habits, dominate our work life and find us love.


We have adopted new tech perhaps quicker than any other invention, and we continue to open our arms to it and most without thinking. But recent headlines have shown that the unquestioned embrace of tech comes with its own problems: see Cambridge Analytica, Methbot and Donald Trump for more details.


The trick for tech companies is to make us fall in love with technology - to make it accessible, friendly, warm and safe. The way to do that is to make it more human, and soft power is the key.


The visual identity of tech


You might be interested in aesthetics, but you’re not Dr Helmut Leder. Dr Leder is the president the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. He has dedicated the best part of his scientific career to clarifying the psychological processes involved in the appreciation of art.


One of his studies involved visiting nursing homes and talking to patients with Alzheimer's - a degenerative disease of which dramatic memory loss is the most well known symptom. In the experiment, Dr Leder showed twenty patients eight pictures - famous works of art including Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Fountain by Duchamp -  and asked them to rate them from the most beautiful to least.


Two weeks later, he returned. The patients, naturally, had no recollection of who he was or why he was there. Nevertheless, he conducted the same test, asking each person to rate the pictures from most to least beautiful. The patients may not have remembered him, but every single one of them put the pictures in exactly the same order as before. Even though their memory had gone, their standards of aesthetic beauty remained. The message for technology companies is clear. Our appreciation of beauty is integral to our being, and for new technology to be adopted, it has to be visually appealing. To put it even more succinctly: looks matter.


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It’s not a new lesson, of course. Steve Jobs, a convert to Zen Buddhism, applied a lot of the aesthetic teachings of minimalism, spartanism and Germany’s Bauhaus movement to Apple’s products. The sleek lines of Macs are still arguably unparallelled in the tech world. It holds up for home assistants: Amazon’s Echo is discreet and could easily be an ornament or air freshener.


As technology evolves, becomes smarter, and joins us in the home, so visual identity becomes increasingly important. American engineering and robotics design company, Boston Dynamics, regularly makes headlines with their bleeding-edge robotics.



They’re undoubtedly incredible inventions, but for every comment in awe of the tech, there are an equal number describing them as ‘terrifying’ or ‘creepy’. It’s little wonder than 70% of Americans fear that robots will take over our lives. Aesthetic appeal extends beyond the look of the robots; it takes in how they behave, their movements, and the texture and shape of their components.

For a more successful example, look to Pepper, the ‘humanoid robot’ by SoftBank Robotics. Pepper is designed as a customer service and companion bot. From welcoming people in retail stores to helping in offices to, eventually, joining people (particularly the elderly) in thehost 30% of all websites worldwide d eyes (a classic psychological trick employed by cartoon animators to make characters cute). Its hand movements - a critical part of being human- make it easy to connect with. And crucially, it rolls rather than walks, which makes it less ‘creepy’. Pepper is designed to be open, accessible and non-threatening.



Away from robotics, the visual identity of tech can make or break a device, particularly if it’s consumer facing. Remember Google Glass? After a launching with a bang back in 2013, only the earliest of adopters jumped aboard. Undoubtedly the price tag and security fears played their part, but reviews saying Glass made them a ‘social pariah’ certainly didn’t help.

The look of everything from virtual assistants, AR headsets, driverless cars and more will only be welcomed by users if they are visually accessible and friendly by design.


While looks are important, personality is key. As technology becomes conversational, the language it uses and the tone of voice becomes more vital than ever.


Language and tone


If the defining tech story of the last 15-20 years has been smart screens, the next decades will surely be defined by voice. Around 30% of all searches will be done without a screen by 2020, according to Gartner. The research group also estimates that by 2020, 3.3 percent of global households will have a VPA-enabled wireless speaker. As voice recognition is refined and improved, so we’ll find ourselves talking to more and more of our everyday tech: but who wants to talk to a robot?


The big tech companies are already working hard to make their versions of AI more personable. Ask your Google Home or Alexa to sing them a song or tell them a joke, and you’ll see the work that has gone into giving these devices a ‘personality.’ It’s also notable that both have female voices, an effort to soften the technology.


In Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly falls in love with his operating system, a part played with husky allure by Scarlett Johansson. The OS, Samantha, understands Twombly intimately - a satirical point about the amount of data tech companies hold on us. But Twombly isn’t thinking about that, because Samantha is charming, warm and, yes, loving.


Technology increasingly relies on our personal data to provide services. It also relies on that data to survive. Sure, Google pre-empting search terms or using our location for contextual search is helpful, but it’s also how they raise money from companies through advertising. The better they know us, the more valuable our information is to advertisers.



Google doesn’t want us to think about the latter, of course. The friendlier and humanlike their services, the more we want to use them. It’s why Amazon is pouring money into making Alexa interactions much more conversational. They’re far from the only ones.


In April 2016, The Washington Post interviewed a variety of writers, poets and journalists who were being snapped up by Silicon Valley tech companies developing virtual assistants.


One conversation At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’ ” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI Interaction Designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”


We’re psychologically programmed to respond to tone. A child will understand tone before it knows words, and can tell if their parent is being friendly or getting cross. This connection only becomes more imperative as we get older. The nuance of tone can imply sarcasm, anger, confusion or humour.


As Psychology Today says: “Your voice is one of the first impressions you make when you meet someone and it can be the one impression that lasts. It identifies you from afar, distinguishes you from others, and often reveals how you feel in a given situation. A full sounding, resonant voice can communicate human and sensitive qualities, bring storytelling alive, express one’s passion and conviction, and be a calming influence in the most dire of circumstances.” To connect with people, technology not only has to say the right things, but convey them in the right way.


Soft power isn’t just about voice and looks, however. It’s about embracing the entire experience a customer has with a product from start to finish. This, again, is an essential part of our acceptance of technology.


The customer experience


Engineers working with tech products have historically not been concerned with how design can affect the customer experience. There had been a long-held philosophy in engineering that the best design is no design at all, because speed is the only metric that matters.


While speed is undoubtedly important to overall customer experience in technology, delightful UX and interfaces - instinctive and intuitive design - cannot be underestimated. The big tech companies have invested billions of dollars into making our experiences with tech beautiful. It’s the reason your five year old niece can pick up an iPad and instinctively understand how it works.


It hasn’t always been so. For anyone who has had to wrestle with a bespoke content management system or something like Wordpress - products built by engineers with a tech mindset - you’ll know just how frustrating they can be. Wordpress may not be the best example - it does host 30% of all websites worldwide - but this is in spite of the user experience rather than because of it.


Look at a company like Google. Each of their products - GMail, Chrome, Maps, Calendar, Assistant - has a coherent design. Once you’ve learnt one, you pretty much know them all. This is the heart of the customer experience with tech products, and this is what future technologies need to embrace.


According to a study by the American Automobile Association, 54% of U.S. drivers feel less safe at the prospect of sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle, while 78% of Americans are afraid to ride in one. If driverless cars are to take off (metaphorically) in the US, they need to exude safety from before they drive themselves off the forecourt.


With so much mistrust around robots and AI, it’s imperative that the overall customer experience is as welcoming and non-threatening as possible. The Internet of Things needs to be designed with helpful failsafes so we feel like we have a modicum of control.


All these big ideas need to focus on the tiny touches that make the interactions welcoming, appealing and acceptable. It’s all very well Elon Musk saying he wants to populate Mars, but for the average person on the street, futurism is fraught with questions and trepidation. Technology design has to ease some of those fears, and soft power is a tried and tested way to do so.


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