property voice assistant

Your Building Is Lacking in Personality, Literally

Everyone has something to say to their buildings. Why is it so cold in this room? When will the toilet be fixed? Where is the nearest transit station? But, it turns out that an important part of creating communication technology is how the building talks back.

A recent study done by scientists at USC called Establishing Social Dialog Between Buildings and Their Users shows that many smart buildings are not living up to their potential, mostly because the people in the building are not actively involved in the process. For example, a smart building can know when an open blind can replace the artificial light being used inside. But unless the person using the lights is ok with them being turned off this change will likely be overridden. If a building were to politely ask “If I open the blinds for you to have natural light, would you please dim or turn off the artificial lights,” then the request is much more likely to be cooperated with.

This can be a great tool to help persuade occupants to do things that are better for themselves, the environment and the building itself. But, just as (some) people have learned, you can’t just always ask for things, instead, you have to build a report. To do this you need a personality attached to the “digital assistants” that are taking over the communication in a lot of high-tech properties. Marketers have long known this to be true, almost every company website now has an automated help pop-up and they always have a cute name. For a while building communication, if it was automated at all, of came with a Vulcanesque lack of emotion.

Now that we are looking at future with includes a lot more interaction with a computer we are finally starting to figure out that many of us are not able to separate real versus artificial when it comes to empathy. Last year a study drew quite a bit of attention that found that most people were reluctant to turn a robot off when it begged for its life. Even though we know it is just a computer program selecting the words we still have a hard time regarding it as less than human. I can attest to this. My wife will almost always thank Alexa or Siri after they answer a question for her. I have explained to her many times that thanking them is literally a waste of breath but she doesn’t care. It is her nature and she likes it when they reply back with niceties like “My pleasure. As always.”

Creating buildings that can answer questions is a start. But what we really need are buildings that can build enough of a report to be able to engage us. That means needing to adjust to each user and be current on the societal changes around us. There are dangers to building interesting, engaging digital personalities. Amazon came under fire last month when Alexa accidentally told its owner to “kill your foster parents.” An investigation revealed that the bot had quoted the community forum site Reddit, which often has abusive messages in posts and comments.

Picking up on how humans communicate will likely make for some awkward conversations since we ourselves are not always the most mannered with our responses. But the end result will likely be worth the risk. The recent study of behavioral economics has shown us the importance of “nudging.” Most of us want to do the right thing, we just often need someone we trust to guide us in the right direction.

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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