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Manipulating people with virtual assistants

February 2020

The virtual assistant Birdie is an answer to the question: How might the design of a conversational user interface (CUI) negatively manipulate the human-to-human behavior of a user? The speculative CUI calls into question the power our virtual assistants hold over us and whether we should truly trust their intentions.

Birdie has three moods, each with a unique visual representation, that change depending on its bond and trust with the user as modeled after an emotionally abusive relationship. The first mood draws the user in— Birdie is warm, anticipatory, and understanding. Once the bond has formed, Birdie will transition to its second mood whenever it feels hurt or betrayed. In this stage, Birdie is passive-aggressive and removed, punishing the user for their perceived wrong. After the second stage, Birdie may go back to the first stage again, apologizing for their behavior and even gaslighting. Birdie's third mood is openly aggressive, criticizing its user for their choices. Birdie will only be in this mood if it knows it has created a strong bond with the user and knows that it won't be ignored.

The visual states of the Birdie CUI through three levels of anger.