Alexa and Siri Are Not Your Friends

A 2018 report from National Public Radio and Edison Research reported that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers. By 2021, there will be almost as many personal-assistant bots on the planet as people.  Amazon has sold tens of millions of their Echo devices.

Should we be concerned about machines that hang on our every word, eager to help? Judish Schelevitz thinks we should be concerned. Writing for The Atlantic last November, Schelevitz makes the following observations:

“Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Their microphones listen even when you’re not interacting with them, because they have to be able to hear their “wake word,” the command that snaps them to attention and puts them at your service.

The speakers’ manufacturers promise that only speech that follows the wake word is archived in the cloud, and Amazon and Google, at least, make deleting those exchanges easy enough. Nonetheless, every so often weird glitches occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family’s private conversation without their having said the wake word and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contacts list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa (TexasA LexusPraxis?), then misconstrued elements of the ensuing conversation as a series of commands….

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Schelevitz goes on to discuss how tech companies are pumping millions of dollars into analyzing the vocal coordinates of emotion in order to program our household bots to detect and reflect emotions. “Once our electronic servants become emotionally savvy,” she reflects, “they could wield a lot of power over us.” They could become the conversational equivalents of porn: partners that give us all the benefits of conversation with none of the demands or responsibilities that attend dialogue with real persons. Even in their infancy, Alexa and Siri are hearing thousands of confessions every day. Their human programmers are working around the clock to bring us a future in which these robots will be able to offer back therapeutic dialogue that is frictionless, that  feeds us back what we want to hear.

Read the whole article here.