Clifford Nass On 'Seductive' Tech And Why You Treat Your Phone Like A Friend

03/03/2013 02:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2013

Why are people polite to computers? And why are they moved by flattery from a machine they know is spouting words at random?

According to Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who studies how humans interact with machines, we tend to treat computers much like we treat living, breathing people. Our interactions with our friends and our iPhones aren't so different, after all.

Nass, the author of more than three books about how people use technology, has worked with companies to make gadgets more helpful, more intuitive and less annoying. Microsoft hired Nass to improve its Office assistant Clippy. And more recently, Google has tapped Nass to help with Google Glass and its self-driving cars.

For our "Life As" series, we asked Nass about the future of our relationships with machines, what we most need to hear from our gadgets and how we're re-wiring our brains.

What’s the biggest change you’ve noted in what people want and expect from technology?

People are more accepting now than they used to be of having technologies that are more richly and clearly social. They want personality, they want something that will joke or be more present.

In the old days, people didn’t like that -- remember Clippy the paper clip. Admittedly it wasn’t great implementation, but it’s an example of something that was trying to say "I’m visible here, I’m psychologically present." People are much happier with that than they used to be, and that's a function of voice [recognition technology] and of people becoming more attached to their technologies.

How do you see our interactions with devices evolving?

As technologies become more competent and as they speak like us -- as they use words and phrases the way we do -- we will see people responding much more socially and much more powerfully to technologies. There is no question that we will see much more tight reactions to technology. We’ll feel a much more emotional attachment to technology.

What does that mean for our relationships with each other?

One of the effects is it can impact the conversations we have with other people. We do see a great increase in people using their machines when they’re with other people -- they’re disconnected from the conversation, for lack of a better term.

Many people have healthy relationships with other people. But yes, there’s something very seductive about technologies that cause us to be distracted and to be de-emphasize our person-to-person relationships. Throughout history it has been that we feel people are healthier and do better when they have strong social connections. To the extent that those connections are no longer with each other but with machines, yeah, that’s worrisome. Certainly there’s been a dramatic de-emphasis in face-to-face communication. The importance of seeing you or hearing your voice when we communicate has declined.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

What’s the most important force driving our multitasking?
The way to make money in media is to sell attention. You have to fight and claw and do all these things to get attention. And the more media there is, the more you have to compete, so it’s an arms race, with everyone competing harder and harder to grab people’s attention.

I don’t think the industry will change, so people have to change. What needs to happen is people need to say, “I’m not going to multitask, I’m not going to fall into the tendency of being seduced.”

Google Glass offers a way for us to keep a screen in front of our faces at all times -- and, to an extent, multitask. What will Glass do to our brains?

We know that chronic multitasking is bad for your brain, but that involves usually using four or more streams of information at one time. We don’t have any data -- because, of course, it’s a new technology -- on what happens if you use two streams of data at one time.

If you want to check email compulsively, neither Glass nor any other technology will stop you. They want you to check things compulsively because they make money on it. It’s not a criticism, that’s their job. They’re going to drive you nuts because that will generate revenue for them and there’s little you can do about it. That’s the reality.

If you were to design the most addictive, attention-grabbing app ever, what would it look like?

It would have a human face (because people love human faces), a human voice and a very clear personality. It would have would be extroverted and friendly. It’d use a lot of vocal range and it would be highly expressive. It would encourage you to talk back to it in natural language. It would understand all the social rules -- it would flatter, it would understand your emotions and it would respond with similar emotions. It would do things to make people feel like they were part of its team. That would be a very good start.

What do we want to hear from our devices that we don’t hear?

Praise. One of the biggest mistakes that’s been made in the industry is we haven’t designed technology to say nice things to us. Whenever technology tells us something, it’s always because we did something bad.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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