Assistants are a big part of the future of human-computer interaction. So how you address your artificially intelligent friend in the cloud is important.
Star Trek’s “computer” is accurate, but cold and sterile.
Of the current leading assistant technologies, three have aimed at friendly first-name approachability. Amazon has Alexa, which sounds fun, female, and friendly. Apple’s Siri is a bit more exotic, but is still approachable (and has a slightly wicked sense of humor). Microsoft’s Cortana continues the female trend, but adds a touch of geek by referencing the helpful AI in Halo.
Google travels a different road: using its own brand.
1. “Hey Google” reinforces the brand
The first reason is the most obvious: using Google’s name every single time you ask a math, history, or other question increases Google’s mindshare in your brain — and in your habits.
“When a name becomes an adjective, that reinforces the brand and experience,” says Steve Tsuruda. “Brand creators can add huge value by doing so.”
It makes special sense for Google because … we google.
“They are the only one that’s officially a verb,” says Cale Gibson.
2. More honest and less creepy
Let’s face it.
Even before Google unveiled Duplex, we knew we’d be doing a lot of talking to machines in the future. For some, that’s not a problem, or it’s even preferable. For others … it’s creepy.
But not, perhaps, if we’re really clear about who we’re talking to, or what we’re talking to, every time we chat.
“Google recognised that people weren’t ready to accept the technology as a ‘human,’ says Paul Page. “[By reinforcing] that it’s a machine you’re talking to, it helps people accept the concept more quickly by avoiding the ‘uncanny valley’ effect.”
3. It’s gender-neutral
It’s pretty clear: women have historically been shunted to lower-end clerical and assistant roles. Always asking a gendered assistant (Alexa, Siri, Cortana) to do things for us could simply reinforce those roles.
“The others all have gendered names, and some fail to have a male voice option,” says Barbara Koelker. “Women as personal assistants should not be the default.”
4. “Hey Google” is more obviously changeable to another wake phrase
We tend to think of Siri as, well, Siri. Alexa is the same way. So it’s somewhat psychologically challenging to change our assistant’s name to something else.
But “Hey Google” reinforces that we’re just, essentially, googling.
So it’s easier to switch to whatever we want. And that adds another option: monetization.
5. Name changes are easier to monetize
“By not naming the assistant it opens the possibility of using whatever name/voice you want,” says Ted Pollak. “Which could (and has already been) been monetized (TomTom/Garmin).”
Want Morgan Freeman on your phone? That’ll be $5. Or, perhaps not, since #metoo? How about Kim Kardashian? She’s $10.
(Note: Amazon allows you to change the reference name “Alexa,” and Microsoft allows you to change Cortana’s name. Google also allows you to change the name on your Android phone.)
6. Sheer differentiation
Branding is good, as we’ve already mentioned. Differentiation is also good … and a key part of branding.
“I think differentiation is always a great idea,” says Ayesha Ambreen. “‘Hey Google!’ reinforces the brand name and it also ensures trust for people who have grown up ‘googling’ their assignments, college projects, theses, and professional reports.”
7. “Hey Google” does not mess with real people
I’m in an airport right now, and “Alexa” just got paged. Fortunately for all of us, most people access Amazon’s Alexa at home via a smart speaker, but if someone named “Siri” had to be called, things might have gotten interesting.
“I think it’s insane that Amazon used a real name,” says Albert Renshaw. I feel bad for the Alexas of the world.”
Smart AI-driven assistant makers are getting better at recognizing our voices, but voiceprints are not super-secure technology yet (if they ever will be). That can lead to problems.
“[I was at] a party where a gal named Alexa was present along with Amazon’s Alexa,” says Hafeez Noorani. “Alexa’s friends’ calls for her resulted in multiple track interruptions: ‘Alexa let’s do shots,’ and the music stops … ‘Alexa where are you?’ … the music stops again, [and] Amazon [is] totally confused.”
“The moral of the story: don’t invite an Alexa if you have an Alexa.”
8. Two words means “Hey Google” is harder to spoof
While Apple doesn’t have this problem, a single wake word can lead to false positives.
“Using the two word wake system causes significantly fewer false ‘listenings’ than Alexa, in my experience,” says Wayne Kurtzman. “It may also make a better ad.”
I’ve seen my Alexa wake up at seemingly random sounds, and quite a bit more frequently than my Google Home Mini, so there might be something to this.