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Artificial Authenticity at Google I/O

Artificial Authenticity

The first day at Google I/O, I met Trevor: intelligent, handsome and brilliant blue eyes that lit up when we made eye contact.  The connection was undeniable.  He was also a charming conversationalist, but I noticed his speech patterns and body language were a bit off.  Yes, I realize developers often poke fun at their eccentric social skills, but this was beyond anything I had seen at other tech gatherings.  Every few minutes, Trevor’s bright eyes faded mid-sentence, his head dropped forward and he went mute.  A few seconds later, Trevor recovered.  He picked his head up, his eyes filled with that mesmerizing light and he continued speaking as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about his behavior.  Narcolepsy?  No, blame it on Moscone center’s poor connection.  Trevor’s real name was not Trevor.  It was QA1, a robot and not even a 3G robot. 

I returned to the conference the next day and ran into QA1 in the middle of a crowd of spectators entranced by that electric blue gaze.  I joined the crowd and noticed someone standing beside QA1 whose badge read: Trevor, CEO, Anybots.  Trevor was the man “behind the curtain” who spoke to me through QA1’s body the day before.  Speaking to Trevor was awkward, as if we had almost met before, although we had communicated only through QA1’s cameras and microphones.  The day before I was under the guise that I was speaking to a robot, and, oddly enough, I could accept that, but I could not transfer the relationship to the stranger/human being standing before me.

What does this story reveal other than the fact that I enjoy talking to anyone, robots included?  It demonstrates that connection, however futuristic or traditional it may be, is obviously dependent on authenticity, but authenticity is no longer obvious. Authenticity becomes increasingly complicated as we interact in many more ways both online and in real life (“IRL”).

I compare this to meeting Andy Wang at the same conference.  I had communicated with Andy for about a month on Twitter when Andy and I met for coffee.  We had never met IRL and know very little about each other, but the conversation flowed.  We discussed careers, our favorite sushi places and Slideology.  We also discussed how meeting IRL vastly improves future online communication.  Why?  I can anchor a physical experience to the online identity of the person behind the name/handle who was once simply an avatar.  The real world interaction reinforces our trust in the person the behind profile. That person becomes more authentic, because interpersonal chemistry, body language and other characteristics contribute to that individual’s identity.  Each of us walked away with a more complete mental profile.

Nothing will ever replace human interaction IRL, no matter how rich the user experience or how far technology advances.  Accordingly, artificial intelligence will become more sophisticated and blur the line between humans and robots, but I will always know there is a man behind the curtain, and I prefer to speak directly to that man than to speak through his robotic counterpart.

  1. Jorge Jaime
    May 31, 2009 at 4:12 am

    Great post Liza, for sure there’s nothing like IRL meetings. That’s why I have a plan to go around the world to meet all the great people I get to chat with and communicate online. Being outside the US is a downside in that matter of course. But going to the importance of the human connection, there’s nothing like it, like feeling the attention, having the “bond” that builds when you meet IRL. It has to trigger some kind of chemicals in your brain and make it an awesome experience. I’ll love to know more about that process. Thanks for triggering yet another question i need to get answered.

  2. dan
    June 2, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    the great thing about IRL is that it happens all the time if we’re open to it. that’s why conventions and confabs work. that’s why the grocery store and the bus work, too. Forget charging your handheld – just catch someone’s eye and see what you’ve got in common. oh, and it was good chatting with you about raw chicken on the 38L!

  3. Ed Thompson
    June 4, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I think this is a very interesting post. I looked up anybots and that stuff all looks like pretty exciting technology. We’re currently doing a lot of social media work to build a bit of support for our new site. It’s pretty hard work, but we’re enjoying the challenge. I think the authenticity problem is certainly a barrier for this kind of work, because you are essentially marketing or promoting something, which people are naturally suspicious about. The solution, it seems, is to be offering something that could genuinely be advantageous to them to know about – thus the promotion is not cynical or spammy, it’s authentic and shows knowledge and expertise in a particular field.

  4. Liza Sperling
    June 4, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I am happy to see that what at first seemed like a silly little story is actually sparking a conversation. Malcolm recently emailed me some photos, which I will post for fun, but the real meat of this is perplexingly simple: What is real? Remember the Velveteen Rabbit?Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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