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Trusting virtual assistants could make us more revealing, UW study suggests

Personifying virtual assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, means we could be revealing more personal information to the companies that own them
DO NOT USE sign no longer at that location University of Waterloo
Photo from The University of Waterloo.

A new study out of the University of Waterloo shows that we may becoming too trusting with our virtual assistants.

Whether it's Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, researchers found people tend to assign their helpful voices personalities and even physical features such as age, facial expressions and hairstyles.

"People are anthropomorphizing these conversation agents which could result in them revealing information to the companies behind these agents that they otherwise wouldn't," said Edward Lank, a professor in Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. "These agents are data gathering tools that companies are using to sell us stuff. People need to reflect a little to see if they are formulating impressions of these agents rather than seeing them as just a piece of technology and trusting them in ways based on these impressions."

The study had ten men and ten women interact with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. The individuals then described their perception of the agents' personalities and what they would look like.


How the participants generally visualized, from left to right: Alexa, Google, SiriHow the participants generally visualized, from left to right: Alexa, Google, Siri. Photo: University of Waterloo

Here is a break down on how each visual assistant was perceived.

- Older, average height or shorter wearing casual or business-casual clothes of dark or neutral colour
- Hair tended to be seen as darker, wavy, and worn down

- Average height or taller, wearing either casual clothes with a focus on tech culture (e.g., hoodies), or business-formal clothes, both of dark or neutral colour 
- Lighter hair (blond, brunette) and as either long and straight, worn down or worn up (bun, ponytail)
- Specifically associated Google with higher professionalism

- Average height, younger than the other agents
- Rarely wearing glasses, wearing either casual but fashionable clothes (V-necks, tank tops, heels) or strictly business-formal style, of either dark or particularly bright colours, especially red
- Hair as short or as long straight hair worn down, either blond or black

"This is a window into the way of thinking, and unfortunately, there are a lot of biases," said Anastasia Kuzminykh, a PhD candidate in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics. "How an agent is perceived impacts how it's accepted and how people interact with it; how much people trust it, how much people talk to it, and the way people talk to it."

More details on the findings can be read here.

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