Monday, April 11, 2016

V Control

I'm sorry, Schmoid.  I'm afraid I can't do that.

I've recently added Alexa to my home via an Amazon Echo Dot.  And she is amazing.  She plays me music, reads me the news and tells me jokes ("What is Spiderman's dream job?  Web Designer.")  Coupled with SmartThings and all the rest of the stuff I've bolted onto my home, she can control most of my lights, my garage and my entertainment system.  I find asking/telling her to do things much easier than stopping what I'm doing and walking to a switch or opening and app.

All of which raises some questions.  Questions that I posed to the Middle School Daughter (MSD):

Schmoid: What do you think of Alexa?

MSD: She's pretty cool.

Schmoid: You know that she's listening all of the time, right?

MSD:  Huhn. [Brow furrows]

Schmoid: She may be listening for key words beyond 'Alexa'.

MSD:  Huhn. [Brow furrowing intensifies]

Schmoid: She isn't even a she.  She's an it.  Why do you think we need to personify her?

MSD:  Huhn. [Grand Canyon of brow furrows]  Hey, Dad?

Schmoid: Yes?

MSD:  If you put this conversation in your blog, I'm gonna kill you.

Schmoid:  [Furrows brow.]

And, like a good Dad or Voice Activated Ordering System, I heard only what I wanted to.


My adorable little MSD did think about these questions, but had no better answers than others:

  • Is Echo listening all the time? 

    Amazon says no, but then their security has been breached before, so even their best intent may not protect us.  And, if you want to go full tinfoil-hat, then what's to say that the NSA hasn't already forced a backdoor that allows them to listen to their favorite keywords.  Which could make your next session of Division more interesting after yelling "Blast their asses!" a few too many times.  It has happened to others due to voice mail.
  • Why is she a 'she'?  

    The short answer is that 'she' is an 'it.'  Yet, the voice and inflection makes it very easy to treat Alexa (and Cortana and Siri and Ok Google) as human.  And this raises all kinds of problems.  I've found myself saying "Thank you" after Alexa completes a task only to be met with silence.  [She] does not respond to politeness.  Is [she] deaf to it or does [she] feel that it is not her due?  Is [she] a slave?

    Of course, [she] isn't a slave.  It is not at even that social level.  However, as devices like the Amazon Echo and other voice assistants become more capable, we will be walking close to this line.  Some thought now will keep the pod bay doors open.  We also need to be careful that these tables are not turned on us completely.

    (The Echo also is/isn't a slave because it does produce income... for Amazon.  Not sure how to weigh that.  Comment below or on any of my social media accounts if you have thoughts on it).

Flavor of the Month

The Amazon Echo is only the latest voice assistant to hit the market.  It won't be the last or even the most capable.  As more of these systems come online and gain more robust capabilities, we need to remember two things:

  • They are not people.
  • Just because they are socially classified as 'people' does not mean that we should treat them like slaves.

Comment below or on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.  Also on Medium.

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