Over the last two months we have assimilated artificial intelligence (AI) into our homes on an unprecedented scale. The Amazon Echo Dot (aka Alexa) seems to have smashed sales records. Whether we are Alexa’s customers, service-users, partners, hosts or even victims is up for debate. What is clear from many commentators is that it will take a little while to establish an enduring long-term relationship.
As the “rogue” mass-ordering of dolls’ houses by an Alexa conversation being broadcast on television shows, our understanding of the interaction between different types of technology is frail.
One strong message of the Amazon advertising campaign, albeit not explicitly stated, was that we no longer need to remember – Alexa (or any other sufficiently advanced AI) will do it for you. From birthdays to take-aways to the order and mass of planets in the solar system. Just ask Alexa.
Convenient? Possibly. But by relying on Alexa, we also run the risk of relying on the algorithms or service contracts that connect with and drive the device. “Call me an Uber” instructs one character in the ad – No thanks, I prefer my cabs to be from an outfit that doesn’t treat its workers so badly.
But as well as no longer needing to remember stuff from the everyday to the academic or arcane, we also no longer need to remember how to find information out.
Just dwell on this a moment, remembering Alexa is viewed as a rudimentary even primitive AI device. With AI you do not need to remember how to learn. You just ask. What is the impact of this concept on research, learning, and education?
Let’s twist the dystopian knife one more turn: AI will become more sophisticated for sure. No doubt fridges will tell us – either verbally or by text message or both – when we need more milk. Ovens will warn us that the cake is baked. But we will need to be in proximity to a suitably enabled, connected device – be it an ice- hockey-puck sized device you plug in, or a smartphone.
So inevitably attention will turn to making AI more adaptable, smaller as well as smarter. Google glasses will seem comic. As early as 2004, RFID tags were implanted into willing human hosts. It is surely not too fanciful to speculate that the capacity and sophistication of minute devices will lead us to a situation where you can opt to have Alexa’s great-great-great-great grandchild injected into your veins, linked to you thoughts for nonverbal communication.
The commercial dividends for whoever wins this race would be huge. Imagine the marketing opportunities – you can sell a range of models from basic to deluxe. There would be endless varieties of upgrades. It would be the gift of choice for coming-of-age or other significant birthdays.
“But, “the government of this near-future day will say, “Shouldn’t society as a whole share in these benefits? Access to AI should not just be for the rich. And the NHS and social care budgets can be rescued if we programme people to live healthier lifestyle. Yes, compulsory and universal RFID insertion at birth makes a lot of sense.”
This may be too fanciful for some. And in some ways the story of such a Brave New World has already been told. But AI is on the move, as sure as a river flows to the sea. We need to be ready for the journey.
“I don’t remember, I don’t recall. I got no memory of anything at all….” Indeed.
This piece also appears in the Huffington Post