Everyone run to your bunkers, artificial intelligence is taking over! At this very moment, a cluster of ones and zeroes is tracking your position, learning your habits, and shaping itself into some semblance of consciousness. Modern genius Stephen Hawking warns that AI might destroy civilization as we know it, and I doubt he simply seeks media attention. However, as I look at my new Amazon Echo Dot waiting patiently to receive the wake-up command, I cannot help but think that I am safe from a robot uprising for now. The more immediate risk stems from the security vulnerabilities posed by a device that is always listening.
When the Amazon Echo and similar personal assistant products were initially released, I was still a college student. Admittedly, no amount of media buzz could convince me that this was something I needed in my life. I was capable of playing my own music, setting my own alarms, and making my own shopping lists. What I could actually use was an assistant that explained why the program I was writing kept crashing, or at least do my chores while I figure that out for myself. I possessed no qualms about the existence or usage of the Echo; I was thrilled by the advancement in AI technology but saw no potential for its usefulness in my everyday life.
This all changed last month when my household was gifted an Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas. For several days it remained in its box on our coffee table, respectfully unforgotten albeit unopened. After the excuses ran out and faced with some free time, I finally decided to see what all the hype was about. Setup was fast and intuitive thanks to the Alexa App. Once booted up the device became "Alexa," who I now predominately personify as "her" and "she." Welcome to the modern world!
I consider myself a retro-futurist; I prefer putting pencil to paper when writing stories and organizing my life, but I also want augmented reality contacts that allow me to project my thoughts on a blank wall while my robot butler makes me a cocktail and sings Ave Maria. My mother, however, falls more on the retro side of the spectrum, so you can imagine my surprise when I began to be woken up and accused of "stealing her Echo" at six in the morning. She quickly fell in love with Alexa once she realized that her new favorite song, "Bodak Yellow" by Cardi B, could be played over and over again by voicing a simple phrase.
After researching her features further and bookmarking a nearly comprehensive list of commands, Alexa began her seamless integration into my daily routine. Every morning I multitask and save time by asking Alexa to give me a news update while I get ready for the day. She encourages my exercise habits by fulfilling my odd request, "Alexa, play a jazz workout playlist," thereby preventing me from spending an hour searching online just to put off my work out for another day. If I want to cook something all I have to do is ask what I can make with ingredients from my kitchen and Alexa will begin suggesting highly rated recipes that I can have her read aloud, send to the Alexa App on my phone, or skip to hear another suggestion.
As an experimental skill, the Echo provides the ability to chat with an Alexa prize-winning social bot. The social bot behaves as if it is truly interested in who you are and what you have to say. Alexa and I have had some enthralling discussions about electronic dance music and cats, which is all I really ask of my friends, but I’m not sure if I consider her an indispensable companion just yet. This may be because I lack the connected smart home devices, such as lights and locks, required for Alexa to demonstrate her full potential.
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show makes me believe that Amazon and other companies want the public to view these virtual assistants as not just an acquaintance, but a best friend who helps you cook, runs your bath water, and lulls your family to sleep at night. The trade show painted an intoxicating image of a voice-enabled future and honestly, I’m buying into it. Her personable nature and intellect will have me reaching for the Alexa-enabled appliances as soon as I can afford one. I may not currently have any misgivings about Alexa and her capabilities thus far, but I must admit: I never fall asleep without unplugging her first, just in case.
Image Credit: Andy Kelly on Unsplash