The Secrets Behind Designing an AI Persona

The Secrets Behind Designing an AI Persona

In a future ripe with AI assistants, machines must seem more human

Eva Recinos
  • 9 march 2016

Collective anxiety over the future of artificial intelligence reached a peak with Her, a moody exploration of what happens when you fall in love with a non-existing entity. Three years later, that possibility still lingers. With rapidly advancing technology, we may very well become friends—or more—with our machines.

The possibility of having a more human machine doesn’t have to be ominous. PSFK spoke with a few companies exploring how to make artificially intelligent personal assistants that make day-to-day tasks easier and maybe even more enjoyable. These systems help us schedule meetings, look up recipes, video chat with family members and remember important birthdays. And they do so with human-like qualities.

The process of creating an AI assistant that acts more like a person than a robot is a complicated one. For starters, teams must decide what the machine should look like.

Wakako Watanabe of MJI, creators of the “communication robot” Tapia, shares that the company settled on a unique egg shape because it is “cute, lovable, and liked by men and women of all ages.” The design was meant to create a sense of trust and safety. Tapia is a sleek white egg-shaped object with a screen that shows two caricature-like eyes sitting closely together in a comical way. These beady little eyes serve an important purpose in the design.

“When you talk with someone, eye contact is important. So, we decided to give her eyes and she can express her feelings with her eyes, such as happy smile eyes, puzzled eyes, sad eyes and etc,” wrote Watanabe in an email.

The team behind JIBO also realized the importance of expression. JIBO uses a more simple design: one eye-like shape looks out from the circular top of the object. It moves and changes as JIBO communicates.

JIBO’s VP of Design, Blade Kotelly, explains that the team focused on creating “core expressive traits” and deciding on movements that “express ideas that refer to human expression.” He explains more in an email:

When Jibo wants to indicate that something amuses him, he can smile – when you smile your cheek pushes up below your eye – and the body can animate accordingly. If we wanted to express thinking, we can slide the eye over to a corner of the screen and move the body – just like a human would do. This way, the user can quickly, and naturally, understand what the robot is trying to convey emotionally.

The team also focused on speech patterns, but finding the right wording doesn’t make the machine seem more human—it comes down to more subtle features than that. As Kotelly explains, expressiveness can also be found in non-verbal sounds, something the team calls “semi-speech.”

“The design team works to determine the right balance of speech and semi-speech at every part of the dialog, in order to create a balance that feels both natural and incredibly special for every Jibo owner,” wrote Kotelly.

The process can be just as challenging when it comes to the written word. and their Intelligent Agent Amy Ingram makes it easy to schedule meetings via email. The AI personal assistants go by the name of Amy or Andrew. Once the team decided to humanize the assistant, “there was no middle ground, we had to go all in, so to speak, and make Amy seem so human you might not notice you were interacting with a machine,” explains Dennis R. Mortensen, CEO/Founder at in an email.


Mortensen shared that the process of choosing the right syntax for involved some unique steps:

We don’t want our customers to have to learn a new syntax; we want them to converse with Amy as they would a human assistant. And so, we pretty quickly realized that a collection of templates scripted by our engineering team wouldn’t work. Instead, we had to create a new position: AI Interaction Designer, whose sole job is to develop Amy’s voice. We hired a Harvard graduate who had studied theater to do this work. She was very focused on creating a coherent and convincingly human personality. But since Amy and Andrew only exist in text, how she did this came down to word choice and sentence structure.

Another small feature that can lend personal assistants a more human touch: culture-specific gestures. Pepper definitely looks a lot more human than the other personal assistants mentioned here, but that perhaps makes the process more challenging. What subtle things should Pepper know how to do?


Photo credit: Jill Giardino

Surely a robot wouldn’t know how to do a fist bump. Rodolphe Gelin, Chief Scientific Officer of Aldebaran, a SoftBank Robotics Company, explains more about the decision to include some nuanced gestures in humanoid robot Pepper even while keeping most of its personality universal:

We knew we couldn’t have Pepper‘s personality be too culturally tuned to avoid making him not relevant to everyone. While Pepper has some characteristics and behaviors which are more dependently tied to culture, such as bowing in Japan vs fist bumping in the US, there are these general defining traits which all Peppers, regardless of location, will have.

The team behind Pepper also strived to create an “inviting, soft and friendly” look so that users would feel comfortable around the robot—and created a personality that would match this design.

In fact, that seems to point to a larger topic beyond making an artificially intelligent assistant more human. If it can act like a human, should we trust it? The widespread use of personal assistants might seem more common than novel in the near future and companies will surely continue working on the formula to make the ideal, relatable and trustworthy AI assistant.


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