• 06-21-2021

  • 8 min read

  • Dasha Fomina, Jason Gilbert

Conversation Designer Jason Gilbert: “We Need To Get Past the Uncanny Valley”



Even those who only begin to explore the world of сonversation design know who Jason Gilbert is. One of the brightest stars in the industry, he’s the person behind some of the most creative chatbot projects for the likes of Disney, Paramount, Lionsgate, and some other big studios. Multiple Webby Award winner, he talks about the dos and dont’s of conversation design in a series of hilarious video sketches on LinkedIn.


Up until the spring of 2021, Jason worked as a lead conversation designer at CoCoHub, a conversational AI company, where he co-created and developed “the world’s most entertaining chatbot” AnnA. After leaving CoCoHub, Jason made his search for a new job public, making fun interviews with industry experts. After that Jason was hired by Intuition Robotics, where he now works as a character designer.


We spoke to Jason who soon will be speaking at the fifth Conversations conference and asked him about his career transition, pillars of character design, loneliness, and the power of vulnerability

On changing jobs and making his career transition public

[The series of interviews] was born out of “what do I do now?” I spent five or six years creating AnnA — spending three to four hours every morning adding and fixing conversations, so all of a sudden I found myself with a big chunk of time on my hands.


I [guess] I could write a book, but it’s not really interesting. [I thought] how do I use this time to find myself again in the world of conversational AI. So I decided to make my journey in finding a job public. This series was very personal because it started with my departure from Anna and it sort of led me into looking for a job and in a way because of it I may have found a job.


So my recommendation is (I don’t know if it works for everyone but it worked for me) — put it out there and be vulnerable. And people will respect it because it’s OK not to show off. LinkedIn is all about showing off and bragging. But it’s OK to say “I don’t know all the answers.” 



Advice to people starting out in conversation design


It’s the Wild West and this is what I love about [the industry] — we’re the pioneers here. I think people don’t realize this but we have the chance to craft a future and it’s super exciting. The good thing is tech requirements for entry are less [compex]. Meaning more conversation designers are coming from fields of art, theater, film, and psychology. 


I would say that one of the things that helped me tremendously was trying to establish myself as a thought leader in the field — I don’t know if I am but that’s what I try to do  — and to build my personal brand trying to keep it in line with the brand I’m actually representing. When I was in CoCoHub I tried to keep my brand very similar and people felt that CoCoHub in a way was me.


Be on social networks, build your knowledge, and most importantly — just start building a chatbot, or digital assistant — anything so you can practice and start seeing interactions your chatbot has with other people. See what the process looks like — from the beginning and to the end because when you get to a bigger organization you can understand all the different pieces of how it all fits together.

On the pillars of personality design

The first one is consistency and then the rest just kind of fall into place after that. A character needs to be consistent. One of the biggest issues I see in a lot of chatbots is that they are inconsistent between answers. I think that’s because most of the time there are larger teams working on them. There’s no one person who’s… the gatekeeper for the personality saying “OK, this is how the character speaks and that’s not how the character speaks.” I think a lot of times departments don’t communicate and then the chatbot is just all over the place. 


When I give lectures about this I always talk about Game of Thrones. Because GoT was a wonderful show for me for about six or seven seasons with great character development that just decided to scrap all the character development and everyone saw what happened. Because the fanbase just abandoned the show. The characters weren’t characters anymore.

And I think that you need to maintain that when you’re building a character. I’m not saying lie to the user  — be transparent, be honest, but be consistent. If you can maintain that at the very foundation of designing a personality if you use that as a guideline, you’ll make a good character


I think humor also has its place. Not all the time, but a lot of time levity is needed. [Often] developers in charge of writing scripts for the dialog are very technical and sometimes we could benefit from having less technical and more humanlike speech.


Look at your favorite characters from TV, film, and cinema. I often talk about catchphrases which I [believe to be] a huge aspect because every good character that I like from cinema has a catchphrase. For instance, my favorite robot of all time is Bender from Futurama and he has this saying that goes “Bite my shiny metal ass.” 


The character development is not necessarily what’s said, but what’s NOT said sometimes. It doesn’t have to be a verbal gesture, it could be emoji. Find the one thing that makes your bot unique, keep it consistent and you’ll have a very good foundation for personality.



On reaching the uncanny valley

I’m not afraid of the uncanny valley. We need to go through the uncanny valley and get past the uncanny valley in a way. I don’t think it’s something we should be afraid of at that point. I’d love to see us past that to real confusion between humans and [robots] but that’s way too far. This is the realm of experimentation and we’re getting close to the uncanny valley in a lot of ways 

And I think that we need to learn to understand that and say “ok it’s going to be uncanny for a little bit until we get past it.” 



On being a multiple Webby Award winner


[My] two projects that won the award were Alber Einstein for National Geographic and Free Murdoc which we did for Gorillaz and Warner Music. Both of them were chatbots that we took in a very different direction than people were accustomed to. With Einstein we didn’t talk about physics, we went into his personal life. This took a lot of people by surprise — they were expecting to talk to the physicist. But the truth is if he started talking physics with us most of us would be lost in a minute. So I chose to focus on his marriage and on his children and I tried to point out that yes, he is the smartest person in the world but when it comes to human relations he’s just as clueless as the rest of us.


Murdoc for the Gorillaz was the experiment in how we can abuse the audience and how much they’ll take before they stop. He would be foul-mouthed, he would be abusive, and people loved it because it was nothing that they’d seen from a chatbot or a voice bot before.


One common thing between those two projects is that my colleague here at Intuition Robotics was my partner in those two projects — Eytan Weinstein who’s head of design here. I have a feeling there may be a third Webby in the near future.  I’m looking forward to it. Fingers crossed!


Want even more insights from Jason Gilbert? Hear him speak at the Conversations V — an international Conversational AI conference.

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