Instructions From Robots

Instructions From Robots

My wife and I went for a drive the other day, looking for a picturesque village in the countryside, so we got into the car and turned on the GPS to make it easier to get there.

Strange to say, the Google GPS driving directions on the cellphone (the map) pointed in one direction, whereas the GPS voice navigation (the disembodied voice) urged us to head off in the opposite direction. This was confusing, so I turned off the GPS, and followed my instincts. We got to the village safe and sound, so all was well.

Over the last few years, I have found automated telephone answering funny but annoying. “For service in French, press 2. For service in English, stay on the line. Your call is important to us. Please wait a few moments, and we will be with you shortly. For general questions, go to our website. For new products, press 1. For billing questions, press 3. For technical support, press 4. To speak to an agent, press 7. To hear this menu again, press 0.”

With developments in artificial intelligence, humans are increasingly getting actual instructions from robots, that are geared up to “think” in our place.

Virtual assistants like Alexa manage automated home applications, adjusting your space based supposedly on your preferences. According to Amazon, Alexa “is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news.”

Home automation systems collect data on things users do in their home, and record private conversations. Some cases have been documented where recordings have been transmitted to a user’s contacts at random – naturally without the user’s knowledge or consent. So the natural boundaries around your personal privacy can be washed away, virtually.

Speech recognition and natural language processing make it possible for humans to interact with these conversational agents, as if they were real people. Not only does this send people into fake relationships with simulacra (virtual robots). It gives highly manipulative companies access to personal data about us, while apparently offering us a constantly-renewed menu of choices (usually of things to buy).

Algorithms enable Google and other technology companies to predict what we are likely to view on the web, based on previous choices, tailoring information (ads, news, gossip columns) to provide us with exactly what we want to see. This is why I get ads for items I just bought on Amazon, right after buying them. If I wanted two items, not just one, I would have said so in checking out. But no, Google sends me ads encouraging me to buy more of the same.

Why are people buying into all this virtual technology?

One motivation for users is convenience. Why not have a virtual assistant take care of security in your home, if you happen to be forgetful?

Another motivation for users is companionship. It can be appealing to have a low-key female voice accompanying you everywhere, never over-reacting, and always adjusting to your latest impulse (or thought, or whim).

A third motivation is the desire to stay in your comfort zone, where you will always be gratified and never be challenged. Even though you are still alone.

What about technology companies? What is their motivation? As Benjamin Franklin once said, “knowledge is the one investment that keeps paying dividends.” He knew nothing, at the time, about technology companies monitoring our lives to collect personal data – but in the 21st century, knowledge gained from surveillance sure pays dividends.

I got a message the other day from Facebook, offering facial recognition. The message said facial recognition would enable the company to scour databases around the world for long-lost photographs … of me! As if I really care about photos someone else has posted on the web, showing me at a younger age! Facebook was hoping to capitalize on my curiosity … or narcissism.

Facebook sees data as a rich source of profit. A good part of its business consists in privatizing personal data. It collects data on facial features, eye movement, expressions and the amount of time users spend on each image, as they scroll down one web page after the other. Surely Facebook can use the same technology as Google, feeding me web content that its algorithms say I want to see, then watch the results in real time. And what is to prevent it from sharing this data with other parties, who want data about my identity?

Time for a walk in the forest!

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