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“Talk to Siri as you would to a person,” suggested Apple to the users of its AI voice assistant Siri in 2011, after it was bundled into the iPhone operating system (MacArthur, 2014). The message was meant to inspire a sense of familiarity with the assistant. Apple suggested that everything was already in place to accommodate the new technology in everyday experience: users just needed to extend their conversational habits to the invisible interlocutor embedded in the phone.

Given the swift success of Siri and other AI voice assistants in the following years, Apple’s incitation might have worked. Similar tools were soon developed by other leading digital corporations: Amazon introduced Alexa in 2014, Google followed with its Assistant in 2016, while Microsoft’s Cortana, now being discontinued, was launched even earlier, in 2013. In just a few years, the technology left the confined spaces of smartphones to dwell in all sorts of digital devices, from watches to tablets and speakers, inhabiting both domestic and professional environments. Just as graphic interfaces draw on visual information to facilitate interaction, AI voice assistants are based on software that recognizes and produces voice inputs. Users’ commands and questions are then elaborated through language-processing algorithms that provide replies to the users’ queries or execute tasks such as sending emails, searching on the Web, or turning on a lamp. Each assistant is represented as an individual character or persona (e.g. “Siri” or “Alexa”) that despite being non-human can be imagined and interacted as such. As confirmed by market research and independent reports, they have been adopted by hundreds of millions of users around the world, making voice a key medium of interaction with networked computer technologies (Hoy, 2018).

About the author

Simone Natale
Simone Natale is Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Loughborough University, UK, and Assistant Editor of the journal Media, Culture & Society. In 2019, he has been a ZeMKI Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bremen, Germany. His work has been published in leading journals in his areas of interest, such as New Media & Society, Communication Theory, the Journal of Communication, Convergence, and Media, Culture & Society. He is the author of two monographs:

  • Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture (Penn State University Press, 2016) and
  • Deceitful Media: Artificial Intelligence and Social Life after the Turing Test (forthcoming with Oxford University Press).