Why not everything should be controlled by voice

Alexa and Siri have made us into Victorian lords and ladies — and it's more sinister than you think

Published January 15, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Amazon Echo Plus (AP/Elaine Thompson/Salon)
Amazon Echo Plus (AP/Elaine Thompson/Salon)

Toy giant Mattel recently announced the birth of Aristotle, a home baby monitor launching this summer that “comforts, teaches and entertains” using AI from Microsoft. As children get older, they can ask or answer questions. The company says, “Aristotle was specifically designed to grow up with a child.”
— Michael Rosenwald, The Washington Post, 3/2/2017

Aristotle was gone by October, but Alexa lives on. You will not change Alexa, but Alexa will change you. That’s the problem, and the most interesting part of the digital handmaid's tale. Like Richard Nixon, we bugged our own house.

The background

In 2015, there were 1.7 million voice assistants in the world. Two years later, they numbered 25 million. The patent for Alexa was registered on Aug. 31, 2012. Who would have thought that six years later, intoxicated homeowners across the nation would be yelling "'Lexa, play us some Jimmy Buffet songs." When I say Alexa, I’m using synecdoche — I mean Alexa (Amazon) or Siri (Apple) or Cortana (Microsoft) or Google Home. The name doesn't matter, the functions do.

About those functions. Perhaps you've heard of the so-called Internet of Things (IOT). The idea behind the IOT is playschool-simple. Right now, we interact with the internet through phones and laptops. That will change. Soon, every device — every device — will be wired to the great digital stormcloud. When you ask Alexa to dim the lights or turn on the electric fence, you’re interacting with the IOT; your voice command is sent through your device, to Amazon’s servers to translate speech to text and figure out how to respond, and Alexa’s response is then sent back to your home. As of this writing, the IOT is comprised of approximately 8.4 billion online-connected devices, which will increase to the unbelievable number of 20.4 billion by 2020. Yeah, that total seems low to me too.

Each of these instruments harvests data. Data in the air, data in the environment, and, oh yes, your personal data too. The experts at Garnet tell me that wholesale spending on Connected Internet Devices will top $2 trillion by 2017, with China, Europe and North America carrying most of that water. Alexa's heavy lifting happens mostly in the areas of entertainment, shopping and home automation. For now.

The issue

The personal assistant, whatever name it goes by, is not going away. These fabulous silicon souls are officially part of our world; they are intertwined in our lives, more subtly than we know.

Many of us have a voice-activated servant in our house, as if we were Victorian lords and ladies asking the help. These assistants have no body but are omnipresent: ready to bore you with weather facts or play your favorite hymns 20 times in a row. All of this is at our beck and call; we have only to say Alexa's name. But a strange thing happened on the way to lifting up the species. We have become bound by their rules. How we talk. How we behave. How much privacy we surrender. Ahmed Bouzid, CEO of a voice-driven app company, tells the world that the machines are finally meeting us halfway: “Until now, all of us have bent to accommodate tech, in terms of typing, tapping, or swiping. Now the new user interfaces are bending to us.” But I'm not so sure.

The short-term problem

There are three great aspirations of any upper-middle class household: servants, Ivy League children and privacy. Alexa is a cheap way of having the former. But it turns out having the first may prevent the second and third. Alexa is using its magic powers to turn our most precious resource — the youngs — into vile beastlings. In the process of putting Alexa into refrigerators and vacuums and SUVs, the “Alexafication of all things” gives every member of every house an attendant.

Eventually, someone thought of the children. As Josh Hafner wrote recently in USA Today:

Last year, a San Francisco dad named Hunter Walk posted a blog titled “Amazon Echo Is Magical. It’s Also Turning My Kid Into an Asshole.” Walk, a former YouTube product manager, saw in Alexa’s subservience a potential worry for parents: If a kid learned she could order Alexa around without so much as a please or thank you, why not a person? “At the very least,” Walk wrote, “it creates patterns and reinforcement that so long as your diction is good, you can get what you want without niceties.”  Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, conducted some of the research on how children perceive robots.

[...] As we interact with virtual assistants more and human beings less, Kahn worries the quality of our human connections will suffer. He and colleagues hypothesized that personified robots represent a new category of being, one that will grow as virtual assistants become infused with our homes, cars and accessories. As smarter, more life-like computers become increasingly alluring, Kahn said, irreplaceable aspects of human interaction could atrophy in the process.

Other parents circulated their own horror stories about their own offspring, which are usually funnier than the adults realize: “Parents are often speaking loftily into their devices, and their kids are watching.” Strangely, Walk never mentions the town stocks, or public shaming, or any tried-and-true methods of child rearing. But enough about my upbringing.

The other in-your-face concern is privacy. Spying, not to put too fine a point on it. That’s what sank Aristotle: fear of the corporation watching your kid. Amazon Echo and Google Home keep your voice data unless you personally delete it. In January 2017, the L.A. Times ran a story about Amazon Echo eavesdropping during a possible murder. According to Electronic Freedom Foundation attorney Lee Tien, “You don’t know how they record, and you don’t when they’re recording. We know that there’s supposed to be a trigger word, but what’s not clear to me is exactly what’s going on when you haven’t said it, because in order for a voice command to turn on, it’s got to be on in some sense in the first place.” In August 2017, McClatchy DC explained that privacy advocates were wary of data collection schemes through EULAs. “For now, news about how companies collect data emerges in bite-sized stories.” Did you know Roomba maps your home?

The long-term problem

These are appetizers to the main course. Human-robot interaction expert Kate Darling warns that “there can be a lot of unintended consequences to interactions with these devices that mimic conversation.” This is the long-tail logic of having a robot guest in your house. Ronald Arkin said, “It is up to us if artificial intelligence technology makes us smarter or dumber, more industrious or lazy … It is changing us, the way we operate. The question is, how much control do you want to relinquish?”

Tons, it turns out. Since the Industrial Age, humans have dreamed of liberating themselves from the drudgery of day-to-day chores. Oscar Wilde said that "On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends." Marx wrote that "the transformation of the means of labour into machinery" was the realization of capitalism. After all, nobody wants to lift crates full of anime pillows. We were just fine with the forklift taking that job. What do we do when the machine is in the house, always on, and able to respond? And if Alexa seems like a harmless novelty, perhaps it is. But we ought to think about the future.

When it comes to Alexa, the press shouts about A.I, artificial intelligence. But to quote Mandy Patinkin, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." Artificial intelligence doesn't actually exist. What we call A.I. is actually machine technology that forces human beings to change their behaviors to suit the machine. When was the last time you called the bank for your account information? Or dealt with an automated teller on the phone? Did you make the teller deal with you like a human? No. Like me, you probably repeated the words in an inhuman way, so the robot would understand.

Machines haven’t gotten more human; human beings are forcing themselves to act more like machines. We talk like Cortana wants us to talk. We drive like the disembodied Google Maps voice wants us to drive. We are the ones with the constrained range of motion. We are the ones being made into robot operators. In so many ways, large and small, we change our behavior for the machines in our lives. It's an unsettling kind of marriage, and we don't even realize we're signing a pre-nup. But we are. In the past year, has the credit card company — or your bank, or Gmail, or any other security-sensitive platform you deal with — made you engage in ridiculous security measures, to supposedly protect you? Wasn't technology supposed to make your life easier? Weren't computers supposed to make everything smarter? Here's what AI means: shaping human beings around repetitive clueless machine behavior.

Nobody doubts that Alexa (by whatever name) adds much to our lives. Indeed, if my Egyptian burial chamber is designed as I have instructed, Alexa will bring a lot to my afterlife as well. The disabled use Alexa to control their homes, and the elderly use them to help with dementia. But we owe it to ourselves to consider this carefully.

Americans love "Black Mirror," and some of us even watch it. But the show’s dystopias are far too narrow. Every single grad-school futurist with an Adderall prescription gets it wrong. They fear the robots and phones will march in and forcefully hook us to the Matrix. Dystopian storytellers focus on the stick, and forget the carrot. Only Huxley and “WALL-Egot it right. If "Black Mirror" ever comes to pass, force will not be required. The machines will not beat us down. We will take the medicine ourselves. Gladly.

Here’s how tech will change us: We will hammer ourselves into the shape demanded for our convenience. Television joined our civilization in 1924. The rise of the indoor sun profoundly changed the world, in every way. Alexa, and the children of Alexa, will be far more intimate, and far more pervasive, than the flat gods in the magic box. Unless we proceed carefully, we'll have what we have now: human intelligence bent the other way. The Turing test is already over, and they won. Alexa, show me tomorrow.


By Jason Rhode

Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. He has been published by Paste Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Comics Journal, and Monkeybicycle. He appeared on an April 2011 episode of Jeopardy, and one day he will command all the good lads in Eastcheap. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

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