When using Google Assistant, most of us don’t even consider who the voice is coming from — after all, it’s artificial intelligence, not a real person. Our virtual assistants, be it Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, are always at our beck and call, but we (for the most part) remain well-aware of the fact that they’re just lines of code and intricate algorithms. But how would you feel if you knew that Google Assistant has a very human backstory?
In an interview with The Atlantic, James Giangola, the lead conversation and persona designer at Google, spoke about the Assistant at great length. When the team set out to create its AI-based assistant, they knew that the line between a cool, futuristic feature and a mildly creepy if uncanny voice bot is very, very thin. Google Assistant was never meant to seem human — that would just be disturbing — but she was meant to be just human enough to make us feel comfortable. To achieve that elusive feeling of somewhat reserved comfort, Giangola and his team went to great lengths to perfect the Assistant.
You’d think that just hiring a skilled voice actor would be enough, but there was much more to consider than just finding a pleasant voice. James Giangola set out on a quest to make the Google Assistant sound normal and to hide that alien feeling of speaking to a robot. In order to do this, he made up a lengthy backstory for the Assistant.
A robot with an extensive backstory
When searching for the right voice actress and then training her later on, The Atlantic notes that James Giangola came up with a very specific backstory for the AI. He did so because he wanted Google Assistant to appear real, and in order to give it a distinct personality, he gave the voice actress a lengthy background on the Assistant. First and foremost, the Assistant comes from Colorado, which gives her a neutral accent.
She comes from a well-read family and is the youngest daughter of a physics professor (who has a B.A. in art history from Northwestern University, no less) and a research librarian. She once worked for “a very popular late-night-TV satirical pundit” as a personal assistant. She was always a smart kid, she won $100,000 on the Kids Edition of “Jeopardy.” Oh, and she also likes kayaking. Let’s not forget: She’s not real.
The need to create such a specific backstory may seem questionable, and it actually was questioned by James Giangola’s colleagues. However, Giangola was able to prove his point during the audition process. When a colleague asked him how does anyone even sound like they’re into kayaking, Giangola fired back: “The candidate who just gave an audition — do you think she sounded energetic, like she’s up for kayaking?” And she didn’t, which to Giangola meant that she wasn’t the right voice.
Google aimed for ‘upbeat geekiness’
Aside from nailing the exact tone of her voice, which The Atlantic described as “upbeat geekiness,” the Assistant had to be trained to sound human not just by voice, but also by speech patterns and rhythms. In the interview, James Giangola talks about some of the different small changes that were made to take the Assistant from robotic to almost natural.
To illustrate the example, Giangola played a recording in which the AI had to contradict a user who wanted to book something on June 31. It had to be done in a delicate, natural-sounding manner that still delivers the required information. When prompted, the Assistant replied: “Actually, June has only 30 days,” achieving the level of vocal realism Giangola was looking for.
Although the Assistant’s intricate backstory may seem overkill, it seems to have helped Google find the right voice actress. According to Tech Bezeer, the main voice of the Assistant is Antonia Flynn, who was cast back in 2016. However, Google is not very forthcoming with information about who exactly voices each version of the Assistant, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The information originates from Reddit, where a user was able to track Flynn down based on her voice, but only Google knows whether she really is the friendly AI inside our mobile devices.