Say those five times fast, and you could be speaking an entirely different language. But these aren’t just words: They’re the names of a slew of automated home robots and virtual assistants–all of which seem to be in competition for the cutest name. Their names also sound astonishingly similar–and according to the linguist and verbal branding expert Christopher Johnson, there are a host of reasons why. “They sound friendly, they sound like names, and they sound like diminutive names or nicknames,” Johnson says. “They sound like the kind of names you might give your dog.” Most of the names end in a vowel, a structure that can often be found in human nicknames–Johnson calls it “the cute property.”
For companies trying to convince consumers that these artificially intelligent robots are helpful, not scary, giving them a cute name seems like one of the first steps. Compared to the menacing fictional robots Ultron (from the Marvel Universe) or Gort (from the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still)–both of which have harsh closed syllable names that seem massive and heavy–family-friendly home robots like Yobi and Kuri sound fluffy and just plain adorable.
But beyond the cute property, Johnson says that companies choose this kind of two-syllable word because it’s a linguistic pattern that’s easy to pronounce across languages. For products that increasingly compete in a global marketplace, using word structures that are found in many different idioms is vital for marketing’s sake. Consonant-vowel-consonant vowel is the ideal word form, and several of the robot names fit this structure; others, like the chatbot Ozlo and the robot platform system Arlo, follow the vowel-consonant-consonant vowel form. These structures are also distinctive enough to act as a hot word for conversational interfaces–and often have URLs still available.
While the structures of these words echo that of simple words and nicknames, they’re also recognizably not human names, an important differentiator for companies trying to quite literally set their products apart from the crowd. If the bot were named Bob, for instance, it might mistakenly answer you when your Uncle Bob is around.
But Johnson thinks there’s a more insidious reason why companies are opting for cute names that remain distinct from human names–and it has to do with the increased anthropomorphism of our gadgets. Many of these bots have stylized facial features: For instance, Toyota’s concept car that debuted at CES 2017 has headlights that look like eyes, and its AI, named Yui, was developed using Disney’s 12 steps of animation in order to appear more lifelike.
But while we might want our bots to have the semblance of a personality (including a sense of humor), we don’t necessarily want them to seem too human. “I think there’s this concept of the uncanny valley in robot design,” Johnson says. “If you give a robot a real human name, like Robert, or Hal, from [the sci-fi movie] 2001, then you’re trying so hard to humanize the robot that it seems creepy. Even while making the robot humanlike, [the name] has to acknowledge that the robot isn’t actually human.”
While some home robots (like the social robot Buddy or LG’s recently announced Alexa-imitator, Hub) have more American-sounding names, the vast majority of these cutesy robot names are also distinctively Japanese. In some cases that makes a lot of sense–Toyota, for one, is a Japanese company. According to a spokesperson for Toyota, Yui’s name is derived from two Japanese symbols: 結, which means “tie together,” and 唯, which means “only one.” It’s meant to evoke a new kind of relationship between humans and cars while also indicating that Yui is completely customizable; Yui’s name is just a factory setting, and customers will be able to name the AI whatever they want.
For American startups with Japanese-sounding robot names, the tie to Japan is a little more nebulous. Mayfield Robots, which makes Kuri, is based in Redwood City, California. But according to Chris Matthews, Mayfield’s vice president of marketing, one of the considerations for the robot’s name was the fact that Kuri means “chestnut” in Japanese–for no other reason than that they thought it was “pretty cute.” Jibo, a home robot that was first announced via Indiegogo several years ago, is based in Boston. According to Cynthia Breazeal, chief scientist and cofounder of Jibo, Inc., the company chose the name because of its meaning (literally, “compassionate mother”) and connotations (compassionate, friendly, family-oriented) in Japanese as well as its “definition” in the Urban Dictionary (“totally freakin’ cool”).
“Some robots are actually created in Japan, but we also more generally associate Japan with advanced technology, so it wouldn’t surprise me that people would be going for a somewhat Japanese flavor,” Johnson says. “The language has properties that fit in with the other design requirements of the robot name and lend themselves well to being borrowed. Japanese words are phonetically fairly simple.”
Ultimately, both the emotional associations and linguistic features of these robot names are important in convincing people to voluntarily bring automated humanoids into their homes. It also serves to hide some of the darker potential consequences of AI and the limits of today’s technology. Your robot might have a cute name that makes you feel a bit warm and fuzzy toward it, but the same robot might lack the ability to recognize or react to human emotions–for example, when users are distressed. A cute name seems like another user-friendly tactic meant to convince us to lower our guard.
After all, in 2001: A Space Odyssey Hal is both remarkably polite and evil. It’s now 2017. Robots have never been closer to true artificial intelligence, but we don’t fully understand the implications of the AI we’re inviting inside. Will we end up with Hal, or Wall-E? Should we treat robots like pets–or like the smart but flawed technology they are?