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.
Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.
- Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
- Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
- Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
A little goes a long way.
- A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
- Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
- Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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