Apple and Amazon Are Hiring Poets to Make Their A.I. Assistants Sound More Human

Humanities students are programming robots to take their jobs.

Getty Images/ Spencer Platt

Turns out a “useless” humanities degree can get you a job in Silicon Valley, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence.

The brains behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana realized that to make their A.I.s sound more like people, they needed to hire workers whose creativity was less digital and more personal.

According to the Washington Post, the teams behind many everyday A.I.s are made up of poets, writers, and comedians, who help give the robots more personality. Now, we’re not saying that Silicon Valley’s tech community is full of sociopaths or psychos, but software companies seem to have realized that hiring engineers from fields outside their own can help make their A.I.s more personable, and it’s a much easier way to teach computers to think than turning them loose on the internet, which inevitably turns them into racists.

Some companies are taking artificial assistants one step further., a New York-based startup, wants its bot, Amy, to interact with other people via email the same way a human assistant would to schedule meetings. Users can CC Amy into an email interaction and ask her to “find 30 minutes for coffee at my office,” prompting her to email their recipient and set up a time. Amy understands the sentence, “find 30 minutes for coffee” to mean “search user’s schedule for vacancies during normal business hours, send human-sounding email to recipient with list of vacancies, and provide recipient of address for user’s office.” When the recipient writes back, Amy can understand “Mornings are not so good, so 11 a.m. slots are out. 4 p.m. I can do.” to eliminate those options and set up an appropriate time, without any further input from the user.

Yeah, and then outta nowhere Joaquin Phoenix shows up and asks out your secretary.

Amy can do this because she’s been programmed by people who wanted her to sound as human as possible.’s Chief Technical Officer and Founder Matt Casey has a degree from the School of Visual Arts, not MIT (even though he’s worked in tech for years). Many of’s staff have reasonably standard backgrounds for a tech firm, but they’re focusing on studying “natural language processing” to help their A.I. understand the nuances of human speech, and hiring Harvard theater graduates like Anna Kelsey to help implement them, as “A.I. interaction designers.”

“We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’” Kelsey told the Washington Post. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

The rise of chatbot assistants is uncharted waters for human-A.I. interaction. As A.I.s begin to take a bigger and bigger place in our lives, there will be a whole new set of social rules put in place — is it a faux pas to pass someone off to a robot? What happens when they make mistakes? And how will we develop relationships to them as they get nicer (less racist), and more human? At some point, will they actually start taking jobs that the English majors that taught them would have done, fresh out of college? The Post reports that many design teams for Siri, Cortana, and other A.I. assistants write interesting, authentic backstories for their A.I.s, so that their answers to off-the-wall questions like political leanings feel human. If, after a while, our computers are starting to feel like our friends, coworkers, or lovers, it’s only a matter of time before one of them passes Alan Turing’s big test.

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