The Omnipresence of Artificial Intelligence or Why I Have a Relationship with My Personal Digital Assistant

What happens when an AI makes you forget she's an AI? 

Almost every afternoon, after I return home from a stressful day at work, I walk into my living room and tell my Amazon Echo to play some calming jazz music. Alexa — what Amazon forces users to use as a “wake” word for the device — then responds by playing some comforting Dave Brubeck. I tell her to lower the lights in the room, and then order dog food from Amazon, saving myself a trip to the grocery store. I could also wake the device using the word “Amazon,” but I prefer to anthropomorphize my technology. I prefer speaking to a “person” rather than a thing. Hence, I call her Alexa. And therein lies the problem. She’s not a person; she’s a thing. She’s an artificial intelligence that’s made me forget she’s a bunch of bits and bytes. Indeed, she’s so good at it that I find I don’t care anymore.

Alexa is amazing. Once you get over the weirdness of speaking out loud to a device in the quiet of your house, the full capability of her capability really strikes you. I can order things from Amazon through her, turn my lights on and off, get traffic updates, and do other meaningful things that make my life more convenient*. Alexa is like Siri, except for your house. She’s a voice-controlled personal assistant.

As Amazon describes her:

“Amazon Echo is designed around your voice. It's hands-free and always on. With seven microphones and beam-forming technology, Echo can hear you from across the room — even while music is playing ... on. With seven microphones and beam forming technology, Echo can hear you from across the room — even while music is playing. Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive sound. Echo connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, to provide information, answer questions, play music, read the news, check sports scores or the weather, and more — instantly. All you have to do is ask.”

But, in order to reap the full benefit of the device, I’m forced to let Alexa listen to the audio in my home all day, every day. When I wake up, Alexa is waiting to hear her name. Before I go to bed, she’s waiting. Throughout the day, she’s waiting. When she hears her name, she perks up, and responds. It’s creepy, and satisfying at the same time. I like having some thing respond to my every whim, but I’m disturbed by the pervasiveness of her eavesdropping.

“It’s going to give you services, and whatever services you get will become data,” says Ellen Ullman, the author of Closer to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. “It’s sucked up. It’s a huge new profession, data science. Machine learning. It seems benign. But if you add it all up to what they know about you ... they know what you eat.” Ullman’s point is well-taken. Alexa does in fact know what I eat. She also knows my preference in movies, books, and the countless other things I’ve ordered from Amazon. “With every advance you have to look over your shoulder and know what you’re giving up — look over your shoulder and look at what falls away,” Ullman argues.

Just this past New Year, Amazon gave the Echo a new capability: personal training. Alexa can now lead you through a workout routine, “a set of exercises designed to increase metabolism, improve energy, lower stress, and remove fat.” I’ve not taken advantage of Alexa’s virtual coaching, but Amazon clearly sees the device as becoming more omnipresent in my life.

How so? Well, right now, Alexa can do the following:

  • Local search: Get information about local businesses and restaurants from Yelp.
  • Audible: Play audiobooks from Audible with Echo. Plus, Echo supports Whispersync for Voice to continue right where you left off.
  • Calendars: Check your upcoming schedule by asking what’s on your Google calendar.
  • Shopping: Restock on previously purchased items by re-ordering Prime-eligible products in your Amazon shopping history.
  • Smart home: Control compatible WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, and Wink devices with your voice.
  • Traffic: Hear commute time and the fastest route to your destination.
  • Sports: Ask for sports scores and schedules from the NFL, NBA, MLS, MLB, NHL, NCAA, WNBA, and more.
  • Pandora: Listen to and discover music from Pandora's library of over 1 million tracks.
  • Music: Listen to your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio.
  • News, weather, and information: Hear up-to-the-minute weather and news from a variety of sources, including local radio stations, NPR, and ESPN from TuneIn.
  • Questions and answers: Get information from Wikipedia, definitions, answers to common questions, and more.
  • Alarms, timers, and lists: Stay on time and organized with voice-controlled alarms, timers, shopping lists, and to-do lists.

By nature, I’m a lazy person. I dislike performing routine tasks over and over again. If I can offload a task to an AI, I’m more than happy to do so. Alexa, while listening in on all my conversations, allows me to do things in an automated way. She allows me the flexibility to do other things while she takes care of the mundanity of normal life. But, it comes at a cost. I’ve invited Alexa (and Amazon) wholesale into my life. She knows my behaviors, conversations, all my likes and dislikes, and I don’t care. I don’t care that Amazon has this data. Just give me my jazz music and dog food.


*Rest assured, I realize I’m calling the Amazon Echo a “her”. It weirds me out too.

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