What Siri and Alexa Can Tell Us About Listening

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Virtual assistants don’t really listen

Do virtual assistants, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, actually “listen”?

By some textbook definitions, they do. They have very good microphones that never get tired. They remember what we say. They “think about”, or at least process what we say. And they respond, sometimes with surprising usefulness. But despite all this, people aren’t going home and sharing their days with their virtual assistants (not yet anyway). They aren’t cancelling their therapist appointments in droves and pouring their hearts out to their virtual assistants. Why?

The short answer is that virtual assistants are not human. They don’t understand human stories: the pains, struggles, consequences, joys, and triumphs. Since they don’t understand this stuff, there’s really no point in sharing it with them. Humans, on the other hand, can respond with a sense of solidarity, empathy.

Another problem with virtual assistants is that we have to ask the right questions to get useful information out of them. We have to adapt our behavior to conform to their expected inputs. This gets tired quite quickly. Even kids will stop playing with virtual assistants because they realize how boring they get after a while. On the other hand, a good human listener actually adapts for the benefit of the story teller. They make it easier for the other person to speak.

In fact, virtual assistants can’t help us explore our complex thoughts and feelings. They can’t help us think outside the box, discover the flaws in our assumptions, or the limits of our thinking. Humans can.

Bottom line, listening is a lot more than just hearing what people say and responding with answers. It is a rich and sophisticated way of receiving and exploring someone else’s human story. It is engaging, immersive, and collaborative. The next time you listen, make sure you bring your patience and humanity to the conversation.

Written by

Author of “Thank You for Listening”. Listening is the art and practice of putting someone else's speaking, thinking, and feelings needs ahead of your own.

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