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With more and more of our lives spent online, it’s no wonder today’s headlines are rife with stories that sound like science fiction plot lines blurring the lines between human and computer.

Earlier this year, a Google engineer voiced concerns that its chatbot model LaMDA had become sentient.

Shortly after, the head of global affairs for Meta published a lengthy article about the impactful experiences that immersive technology makes possible, which featured an image of a man playing chess with a humanoid hologram — implying technology can generate and replace that kind of human-to-human experience. 

Most recently, the head scientist for Alexa at Amazon, Rohit Prasad, presented at the company’s conference for machine learning, automation, robotics and space. During his keynote, he touched on how “empathy and affect” are key for building trust, which he noted are even more important “during these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost the ones we love.”

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He went on to point out that while artificial intelligence (AI) can’t replace our loved ones, it can make their memories last. This set-up introduces a video showcasing a capability that “enables lasting personal relationships.” The video unveils a new feature called Personal Voice Speech that lets users change Alexa’s default voice to one of someone they know in real life — even a loved one that has passed, as the presentation implies.

While these stories have sparked a mix of curiosity, ridicule and thoughtful discourse, they are just the latest in a long tradition of imagining how AI could change our world if it were to more closely resemble humanity. It’s been over a decade since IBM’s Watson competed on Jeopardy! and more than half a century since the sentient supercomputer HAL 9000 was brought to life on the silver screen in 2001: A Space Odyssey

All of which begs the question: After decades of creativity and innovation fueled by the promise of AI, why is it still easier to talk on the phone to a real person if in need of customer service or help with a problem? 

What if we went beyond the surface-level traits that make AI look and sound like a human, and instead focused on what it feels like to interact with a human? 

Achieving authenticity via automation 

Putting aside the disconcerting use case presented in the Amazon keynote, the capability to mimic voices based on short audio clips is certainly an impressive feat of technology. However, empathy and affect are key to building trust, and digital, human-like experiences cannot be replicated simply through attributes. 

Whether using affect as a noun (e.g., tone, volume, vocabulary, etc.) or as a verb (i.e., influence), it is not necessarily distinct from empathy, but rather an expression of it. Empathy requires understanding of another person’s perspective and feelings — precisely what so many AI use cases fail to do. 

According to an annual survey of senior C-suite executives published by New Vantage Partners, 92% of companies are accelerating their investment in AI. The companies surveyed, including 85 blue-chip firms from the Fortune 1000, report that they are progressing steadily in their adoption of AI initiatives: More than 75% reported widespread AI adoption, and less than 5% reported having no applications of AI in use.

It’s clear that businesses are confident in their AI investments. Twilio found that 75% of business-to-consumer (B2C) brands say they have a good or excellent personalized experience. However, that survey also uncovered a crucial counterpoint: Only 48% of consumers surveyed agreed with that statement. This gap between what brands believe they’re offering and what their consumers are actually experiencing is cause for concern. 

Leveraging conversational technology to deliver personalized experiences

Consumers have clarified that technology alone doesn’t create an excellent, personalized experience. Automation can help brands of all sizes offer more human interactions at scale, but only if it really captures what makes our interactions human. Conversational technology at scale doesn’t require sci-fi packaging — even small brands can do it today and get it right. Brands should focus on technology that powers interactions that offer substance over superficial features, authenticity over theatricality. 

Tools that drive conversational interactions work best when they’re in dialogue with the user; not just learning from inputs and synthetic data, but having a conversation that yields more and more context to make a recommendation – just like a person would. The insights delivered through one-to-one interactions can be more powerful for brands than third-party data, and they’re also preferred by consumers. 

Brands that offer truly interactive, conversational experiences powered by information during engaging interactions with customers, will stand for better growth and stronger loyalty than those that try to replicate these zero-party insights by extracting third-party data from unsuspecting users. 

Bringing humanity to automated experiences doesn’t mean mimicking human beings. It’s about understanding how human interactions work. The concept boils down to a simple observation — we learn more about each other through conversations.

Human interactions unfold one question at a time, with each side getting more value and context as the conversation progresses. Compare this to a typical interaction with a brand that only asks for things from users — birthday, email, hometown, etc. — and extracts the rest from cookies without the user knowing. It’s a one-sided conversation, with the user providing all the value and getting very little in return. If a real person interacted with you that way, would you want to talk to that person again, or trust them with your personal information? Probably not. 

While advancements that make AI incrementally more human are entertaining and thought-provoking, so few of these breakthroughs capture the parts of our humanity that allow us to connect with one another as people, such as empathy.

The real value for both brands and consumers will be found in the more subtle interactions that feel so natural; the technology is almost invisible, taking a back seat in order to facilitate a more empathic connection to our humanity. 

Karrie Sanderson is the chief marketing officer at Typeform.

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