Who will be the new babysitters for my new needy AI apps?

09.20, Friday 29 Mar 2024

I used to play Animal Crossing a bunch (2006).

You know, the Nintendo game where you live in a village of talking animal friends. When it’s light out, it’s light in-game; when it’s dark, it’s dark; when it’s summer, it’s summer.

It keeps you playing!

  • Carrot – new things to dig up every day, and a growing relationship with the animals.
  • Stick – if you skip a few days, you spend your return visit being negged by everyone for going awol. If you skip a few weeks, you are punished by having to spend hours cleaning cockroaches out of your house and pulling weeds.

The stick.

What happens when that stick is how high-engagement apps compete?

We can start feeling out this future already.

A wave of AI dolls will soon be upon us.

Including dolls for adults…

Now, this $1,800 AI-enabled doll may well look like something you’d find in a haunted attic, but it’s actually meant to act as an interactive digital pal for people who are lonely or in long-term care facilities.

Thanks to the large language model stuffed inside the doll, the Hyodol can supposedly hold conversations with its owners, as well as provide health reminders such as when to take medication or eat a meal. It’s every bit as connected as you can imagine, with a companion app and web monitoring platform that lets caretakers monitor the device and its user from afar.

I’m going to include software dolls in this: character.ai and Replika are both about making AI buddies.

And I am not saying this is a bad thing:

  • AI care dolls are made to mitigate loneliness.
  • AI software characters tap into a specific learning style: look at the language learning characters on the character.ai homepage. Heck, with ChatGPT’s infinite patience, I can finally use quaternion math after - I am not kidding - almost a decade of trying.
  • I’m not obsessed with worthiness: give me 2020s upgrades of Tamagotchi, Teddy Ruxpin, Little Computer People, it’s all amazing.

So we’ve got traditional jobs to be done plus the pseudo-social interaction that AI allows.

This is the future of software.

Chris Dixon in 2010: The next big thing will start out looking like a toy.

Toy PCs displace the mainframe for business computing.

Toy character-based AIs displace… Excel?

I mean, why not. You don’t replace the software directly. Instead, from my post about AI agents last week: integrate the AI into the customer’s business by giving it a well-understood job role.

Now, how about that stick?

Here’s where the stick comes in:

The logic of the attention economy is that apps (services, media, social networks, games) need usage not just to monetise through ads but to stay top of mind and produce growth.

So they work on engagement. On being sticky.

This is the reason that my home maintenance app sends me a notification about something asinine, just to ensure that I don’t forget about it.

The attention economy ain’t going anywhere.

So my observation with AI-enabled apps is this:

  • AI agents are enormously powerful, either as separate assistants or a self-driving (copilot) mode in the apps I already use
  • AI interactions are more naturalistic…
  • …and inevitably open the door to pseudo-social relationships.
  • Social relationships are sticky like never before, and in the attention economy, firms will find building these features impossible to resist.

Look out for your Excel copilot giving you sadface if you forget to open it for a day.

Let me try putting this another way.

The underlying attribute of the app era has been FOMO.

Fear of Missing Out. Coined in 2004 by Patrick McGinnis (2014, Boston magazine):

Every generation has its afflictions. The early-20th-century Viennese had the Oedipus complex. Twentysomethings of the 1990s had angst and ennui. What McGinnis had stumbled on-FOMO-would soon become a hallmark of the digital age.

I don’t just mean obvious FOMO, as in Facebook.

In its distilled form, FOMO is the red dot.

All apps give me notifications. Photos tells me that it has a new set of old pics to go through (why can’t I be trusted to stumble across the shoebox of photos on my own?). Dropbox tells me that my colleague has downloaded the transfer (do I need to know? Aren’t we already working together?).

With AI, the structure of feeling is changing.

As FOMO was to the 2010s, the 2020s will be about the carrot and stick of relationship.

What does that look like in its essence?

I don’t know! If FOMO led to the pervasive red dot…

…then what happens when you purify social obligation down to a crystal just a few pixels across?

Will apps need to be cajoled and reassured that you love them, if you neglect them for a few days? Will your email app be sluggish and drag its heels when you get back from your vacation?

What does a home screen full of these little needy agents look like, all competing for our affection?

This is already happening, it’s just not evenly distributed. For instance:

If you’ve never been subjected to automated drip marketing emails then consider yourself lucky.

They start as emails that sound as if they come from a legit human, asking for a link on your homepage, or offering to help with some design work, something you’ve mentioned on LinkedIn perhaps.

As you don’t reply, they send nudges and reminders. Fine, fine.

Then sometimes, not always but sometimes, you get emails like

Matt?? Are you not getting these emails or rudely ignoring me

And it is SO RUDE. Is the email author so distanced by automation that they write passive aggressive messages that they’d never send personally?

This is the mode of interaction that will accelerate, evolve, get more subtle, and get baked into our KPIs, dashboards, and interfaces.

Oh or the Duolingo owl.

Weaponised guilt-tripping (2018): We would show him crying, and I think that one had the most profound effect on people.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine feeling like you suck because a green cartoon owl is crying – forever.

Back to the creepy dolls!

Because there’s a solution to that at least.

There will come a point where AI toys need constant attention, otherwise they will degrade and spiral off into ugly self pity.

But people will want to collect and keep them.

So there will be another device, a kind of rocking doll, which talks to the companion dolls all day to keep them happy.

There’s a sketch on John Finnemore’s radio show about last time this happened.

Here’s the transcript. It’s about luxury wristwatches:

a watchmaker discovered a way to use the natural movements of the wearer’s arm to keep the mechanical ones charged, without needing either manual winding or batteries. These became the most highly priced and expensive of all. But some very, very rich people might have two such watches. Or even more! And then, the ones that weren’t being worn would begin to loose their charge.

And so, the luxury watch companies began to make and sell these objects, to their richest clients. Machines, in which the buyer could store up to four of his spare, luxury, battery-less watches, which would rock them ceaselessly to and fro to simulate the movements of the arm and keep them charged.

I’m not saying you’re definitely going to need an automatic watch winder to keep Photoshop 2028 happy and motivated, in the same way you needed anti-virus software in the 2000s, and you spent your 2010s marking everything as read.

But honestly I wouldn’t be surprised.

At least until they invent self-satisfying software to go along with Self-Satisfied Doors anyway. Welcome to the era of Douglas Adams technology.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.