Alexa, have you changed your hair?

virtual assistant

People tend to anthropomorphize their virtual assistants, assigning them personalities and physical features such as age, facial expressions and hairstyles according to research from Canada's University of Waterloo.

But giving these qualities to virtual assistants could cause people to reveal more personal information to the companies that own them than they otherwise would, says the study.

"People are anthropomorphizing these conversation agents which could result in them revealing information to the companies behind these agents that they otherwise wouldn't," says Edward Lank, a professor in Waterloo's David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. "These agents are data gathering tools that companies are using to sell us stuff."

The researchers had subjects interact with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. They then interviewed the participants to ascertain their perception of the agents' personalities and what they would look like before finally asking each participant to create an avatar for each agent.

The results show Siri's sentiment is predominantly described as disingenuous and cunning, while Alexa is genuine and caring. The participants commonly described Alexa's individuality as neutral and ordinary, while participants considered the individuality of Google, and Siri especially, to be more defined and pronounced.

When asked to attribute physical qualities to the assistants, Alexa is perceived to be of average height or slightly shorter, older than the other agents, and wearing casual or business-casual clothes of dark or neutral colors. Her hair tended to be seen as darker, wavy, and worn down.

Google is seen as being average height or taller, wearing either casual clothes with a focus on tech culture (such as hoodies), or business-formal clothes, both of dark or neutral colors. Google’s hair is seen as lighter in color and as either long and straight, worn down or worn up in a bun or ponytail.

Siri is commonly described as being of average height, younger than the other agents, and rarely wearing glasses, wearing either casual but fashionable clothes or strictly business-formal style, of either dark or particularly bright colors, especially red. The participants describe Siri's hair as either short or long and straight and either blonde or black.

Lank adds, "People need to reflect a little to see if they are formulating impressions of these agents rather than seeing them as just a piece of technology and trusting them in ways based on these impressions."

The study will be presented in more detail at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems to be held in Honolulu in April.

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