Read this first.
April 3 2016 8:04 PM
A.I. assistants can give you the news, order you a pizza, and tell you a joke. All you have to do is trust them—completely.
By Will Oremus
Photo by iStock. Photo illustration by Holly Allen.
It was a weeknight, after dinner, and the baby was in bed. My wife and I were alone—we thought—discussing the sorts of things you might discuss with your spouse and no one else. (Specifically, we were critiquing a friend’s taste in romantic partners.) I was midsentence when, without warning, another woman’s voice piped in from the next room. We froze.
Will Oremus Will Oremus
Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
“I HELD THE DOOR OPEN FOR A CLOWN THE OTHER DAY,” the woman said in a loud, slow monotone. It took us a moment to realize that her voice was emanating from the black speaker on the kitchen table. We stared slack-jawed as she—it—continued: “I THOUGHT IT WAS A NICE JESTER.”
“What. The hell. Was that,” I said after a moment of stunned silence. Alexa, the voice assistant whose digital spirit animates the Amazon Echo, did not reply. She—it—responds only when called by name. Or so we had believed.
We pieced together what must have transpired. Somehow, Alexa’s speech recognition software had mistakenly picked the word Alexa out of something we said, then chosen a phrase like “tell me a joke” as its best approximation of whatever words immediately followed. Through some confluence of human programming and algorithmic randomization, it chose a lame jester/gesture pun as its response.
In retrospect, the disruption was more humorous than sinister. But it was also a slightly unsettling reminder that Amazon’s hit device works by listening to everything you say, all the time. And that, for all Alexa’s human trappings—the name, the voice, the conversational interface—it’s no more sentient than any other app or website. It’s just code, built by some software engineers in Seattle with a cheesy sense of humor.
But the Echo’s inadvertent intrusion into an intimate conversation is also a harbinger of a more fundamental shift in the relationship between human and machine. Alexa—and Siri and Cortana and all of the other virtual assistants that now populate our computers, phones, and living rooms—are just beginning to insinuate themselves, sometimes stealthily, sometimes overtly, and sometimes a tad creepily, into the rhythms of our daily lives. As they grow smarter and more capable, they will routinely surprise us by making our lives easier, and we’ll steadily become more reliant on them. Even as many of us continue to treat these bots as toys and novelties, they are on their way to becoming our primary gateways to all sorts of goods, services, and information, both public and personal. When that happens, the Echo won’t just be a cylinder in your kitchen that sometimes tells bad jokes. Alexa and virtual agents like it will be the prisms through which we interact with the online world. It’s a job to which they will necessarily bring a set of biases and priorities, some subtler than others. Some of those biases and priorities will reflect our own. Others, almost certainly, will not. Those vested interests might help to explain why they seem so eager to become our friends.
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