Making that character seem plausible falls to Google’s personality team, which has been working on turning Assistant into a digital helper that seems human without pretending to be one. (That’s part of the reason, by the way, that Google’s version doesn’t have a human-ish name like Siri or Alexa.) Coats, whose title is character lead for personality, draws on years of experience developing fictional characters. She spent five years at Pixar Animation Studios working on films such as Monsters University, Brave and Inside Out. “It takes a lot of thinking about what are the other tools besides facial expressions that can be used to make emotional connections,” she says.
Coats tells me about the questions Googlers consider when crafting a response that’s lively but not misleading. Among them: What does the user hope to get out of the interaction? How can Google put a positive spin on the answer? How can it keep the conversation going? Then Coats gives me a specific example: When asking Assistant if it’s afraid of the dark, it won’t respond with an answer that suggests it feels fear. Instead it says, “I like the dark because that’s when stars come out. Without the stars we wouldn’t be able to learn about planets and constellations.” Explains Coats: “This is a service from Google. We want to be as conversational as possible without pretending to be anything we’re not.”