Alexa, Siri and friends
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?