Alexa, Siri and friends

Business Spotlight - - TECHNOLOGY -

Scene: Jack and Jill meet on Tin­der and ar­range a date. They have a won­der­ful evening at a hip restau­rant that does an ex­cel­lent Por­tuguese-style chicken frango and then they go back to Jack’s place for a glass of wine. The year is 2018.

It’s a very mod­ern apart­ment, and while Jill takes a seat on the Grazia & Co Agent 86 sofa, Jack goes off to get the wine. Sud­denly, Jill hears him shout: “Alexa, I asked you to or­der Sau­vi­gnon Blanc, not bloody Chenin Blanc!”

Alexa, the vir­tual as­sis­tant de­vel­oped by Ama­zon, replies in her calm voice, “Based on your pur­chas­ing his­tory, I or­dered a bot­tle of Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon. This 1996 Chenin Blanc is a per­fect bal­ance be­tween honey smooth­ness and a clean, re­fresh­ing fin­ish.”

“Alexa, I’m not stupid,” Jack cries. “I know more about wine than you do. I drink the stuff! You don’t. I told you to get Sau­vi­gnon Blanc.”

As she lis­tens to this con­ver­sa­tion, Jill thinks, “If that’s the way he treats his vir­tual as­sis­tants, how does he treat his girl­friends?” So, she picks up her coat and leaves.

As we move into a world in which hu­mans and ro­bots with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) meet, new ques­tions arise. How should we in­ter­act with the tech­nolo­gies that will re­place some jobs, im­prove oth­ers and, gen­er­ally, play a big­ger part in life and work?

Ser­vants or friends?

Will these vir­tual as­sis­tants be our ser­vants or our friends? In Septem­ber 2017, Ap­ple posted a job ti­tled “Siri Soft­ware En­gi­neer, Health and Well­ness”. This is be­cause so many peo­ple who are de­pressed or sui­ci­dal ask Siri, Ap­ple’s vir­tual as­sis­tant, ques­tions of a “cri­sis” kind. If Alexa is al­ways in the home, is “she” a fam­ily mem­ber? Should we “own” Siri?

Joanna Bryson says we shouldn’t. She’s an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of com­puter science at the Univer­sity of Bath in Eng­land and the au­thor of a con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tion pa­per called “Ro­bots Should Be Slaves”. Bryson told Busi­ness Spot­light: “Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is some­thing peo­ple are now buy­ing and sell­ing. A lot of peo­ple want AI to be a per­son, but then you’d have a per­son that you’d own. But we shouldn’t want to own peo­ple be­cause his­tory shows us that it’s wrong to buy and sell peo­ple.”

Ro­bots are not peo­ple, says Bryson. There­fore, they should do what we want them to do.

Should peo­ple own a PARO? That’s an in­ter­ac­tive ro­bot now be­ing used in clin­ics in Ger­many, Aus­tria and Switzer­land to com­fort peo­ple suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia. It looks and sounds like a baby seal, and it’s pop­u­lar with those who need a new kind of non-hu­man com­pan­ion.

Right now, we can’t re­ally say what the fu­ture holds for us. We know that com­puter power, new en­ergy sources and man­u­fac­tur­ing will change dra­mat­i­cally by 2050 and we can see the out­lines of the changes ahead.

What we can­not see are the sec­ondary ef­fects — the busi­ness mod­els that will be built on top of the core tech­nolo­gies to cre­ate to­mor­row’s jobs. That’s why it’s so im­por­tant to­day to find time for think­ing, learn­ing and science fic­tion.

If Alexa is al­ways in the home, is “she” a fam­ily mem­ber? Should we “own” Siri?

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