In this piece, Executive Creative Director Alistair Campbell shares the results from our latest innovation project, which aims to bring real-life connections back into a voice search world.

Social media can be a powerful force for good in the world. From launching the Arab Spring, to helping movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo gain global traction, it has the potential to drive hugely positive change.

But, while we can use our devices to reach out and engage with more people than ever before, there’s emerging evidence from Harvard University, as well as a joint study by the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University, which suggests that rather than making us feel closer to our friendship groups, using social can sometimes make us feel lonelier.

As an agency that prides itself on using social platforms and innovations to build meaningful connections with people and communities, we wanted to explore ways to try and address the issue.

Can we use voice tech to get people talking in real life?
Voice assistants have been popping up in more and more homes around the UK since the launch of Amazon’s Echo and the Google Assistant. Hands-free internet searches, weather forecasts, traffic updates and restaurant suggestions are all common asks for trusty assistants.

But, does asking your virtual assistant mean you’re not asking a friend or relative? And can we adapt the interaction to bring real people back into the conversation? We decided to put it to the test.

Armed with an Amazon Alexa, our Senior Creative Technologist Sam Cox set about trying to create a new skill for the voice assistant that would use AI capabilities to encourage human interactions around specific Alexa requests.

We started by building a skill that could recognise common requests, such as restaurant recommendations and cinema times – activities that are best enjoyed with company. We then linked it to the user’s contact details and phone capabilities so that it had the potential to make bookings involving a friend or family member. For example:

When the user asks: “Alexa, where’s a good pizza restaurant?”

The assistant replies: “There’s a pizza restaurant called Franco Manca that’s five minutes away. How about inviting Jessica for dinner? Do you want me to call her?”

Another example would be the user asks: “Alexa, when’s the next Avengers movie showing?”

The assistant responds with: “Avengers is playing at the VUE cinema in Tufnell Park at 6:30pm. Shall I call Alistair to ask if he would like to join you?”

Upon a “yes” response from the user, the Alexa skill would dial both you and your friend or family members phones, so that you could have a human conversation about the topic and hopefully a physical meeting off the back of it.

By combining the voice assistant and human sides of the conversation, we aimed to connect people digitally, physically and socially. The result? A way of encouraging more human interactions that are enabled – rather than replaced – by our technology.

If you’d like to see the Alexa skill in action, please contact us via TalkToUs@wearesocial.net.