xCoAx 2020 8th Conference on Computation, Communication, Aesthetics & X 8–10 July, Graz online

Pythia Consulting: Asking Difficult Questions While on Hold

Keywords: Telephone, Intermedia, Artificial Intelligence, Text-to-speech, Audio Interface, Physical Computing, Interaction Design, Self-Reflection.

Pythia appears as an old-fashioned touch-tone telephone, but instead of hearing a dial tone when the receiver is picked up, participants are immediately greeted with a voice menu system. The menus guide people through a series of audio experiences that question the role of automated voice services in our lives and revalues the time wasted on them. Pythia provides a model of how voice services could be used to create meaningful experiences for people by asking thought provoking reflective questions. Initially, these experiences will mimic that of navigating seemingly endless voice menus and being put on hold, as is familiar when calling any customer support line or large modern business. The interaction will begin with a familiar prompt, “Thank you for calling the Pythia Consulting. Your call is important to us. This call may be recorded for quality and training purposes. Für Deutsche presse eins, for English press two. Please hold while we connect your call.” Users can then select one of six paths to take through the artwork.

  1. The Game. In this game participants will listen to a snippet of a story, and then be asked to add a few sentences to it. Their input is recorded and added to the narrative that has been developed by all previous participants. After contributing to the narrative, participants will have the option to listen to the full story. This path draws on the structure of Surrealist games like Exquisite Corpse and Consequences.
  2. To Love. In this option the participant will be asked a series of questions designed to build an emotional connection between two people. These include questions like, “When did you last sing to yourself?” and “What is your most treasured memory?” To generate a simulated dialog the initial user will also hear responses to the questions generated by the computer and past participants. These questions are derived from Arthur Aron’s series of questions found to generate affection between participants (Aron et al. 1997).
  3. The Doctor. In this option participants will be asked a series of generic Rogerian psychologist questions like, “What’s bothering you today? How did that make you feel? Tell me more.” Inspiration for this track came from past works in artificial psychology, like Weizenbaum’s Eliza chat bot (Weizenbaum 1976).
  4. The Decider. On this path the user is asked a series of questions designed to help them make a tough decision they are facing in life. The questions on this track are derived from Chip and Dan Health’s work on complex infrequent decision making (Heath and Heath 2013).
  5. The Oracle. Based on the participant’s birthday, the system will deliver a horoscope inspired by past responses to The Doctor and The Decider paths.
  6. Endless Hold. If the user would prefer to not engage with one of the preceding options they may listen to the hold music, forever.

This piece subtly examines the activities our minds go through while waiting. At the same time, it takes a routine mundane experience with a robot and transforms it into a provocative exercise in self-reflection.


Pythia Consulting was commissioned for the 2020 Digital Spring Biennale.

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