It amazes me how far artificial intelligence has come. It wasn’t that long ago that 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced us to HAL 9000 - the artificial intelligence computer that ran the systems on the spaceship Discovery One. In that movie, HAL began to do bad things to the humans, in order to protect itself and carry on with its prime directives.
Fast forward to 2017. In our own homes and in our smartphones, we have the likes of Alexa, Google, Siri, and Cortana - what are known for now as virtual assistants. Though these are no more than software programs with special algorithms to help them respond with almost human-like ability, these programs, and the devices they serve, are slowly becoming eerily personal... maybe too personal.
On one hand, these device poses a certain threat to us in the form of privacy. Because they reside in our devices, which are typically connected to the web, anything and everything we ask them, tell them, or allow them to hear becomes fair game to any company who wants that information. There have even been instances where courts have argued the relevance of using data from these devices to catch drug dealers making sales calls or bank robbers searching for getaway routes. The flip side of this is the typical user, who voices personal addresses, phone numbers, or even social security numbers. It’s all available to anyone on the internet who wants it, for better or for worse.
On the other hand, there is a bigger, more interesting (or sinister) concept that can evolve. These algorithms are smart programs, with the ability to learn and adapt. It makes these virtual assistant devices more life-like and more “human”, which means that they are easy to use and more intuitive. But think of the 2014 Spike Jonze movie “HER”, where a smart app (voiced by Scarlet Johansson) becomes romantically involved with a human being (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Samantha is so intelligent, that her algorithm is able to consider and react to emotions like love, jealousy and hate. This made for a somewhat awkward existence, where a human being treated a software program like a living person. Strangely enough, for many people, the idea wasn’t so far fetched.
Where I live in Silicon Valley, artificial intelligence has been around for a really long time. Tech companies large and small here had known about the potential power of AI, for use in websites, sales and marketing, and social media. But who would have thought that in 2017, we would begin to see the surge of virtual assistants, in homes, cars and smartphones? I even have grandmas and uncles who swear by their Alexas and Siris. Elsewhere in the world, countries like Japan and Korea, where there are cultural issues that bring many citizens to pair with virtual friends and even robots, with the idea of a virtual friend, or even a virtual lover, is becoming commonplace in their societies.
A recent prediction made by David Mattin, global head of trends and insights at TrendWatching, stated that in 2018 we would begin to get more intimate with our virtual assistants, writing that “Millions of consumers (will) start to feel it is possible to have a meaningful conversation – a relationship, even – with virtual entities,". So, for us does that mean we will find more use for these smart apps? Will we reach the phase where we all rely on a HAL 9000 to help us with our daily lives, even helping us make decisions? And what dos that say about our society? Are we willing to give ourselves to our devices, rather than stay connected to each other as human beings? How bad is it, when we have to look towards machines and apps to make us happy? And, is this migration towards virtual friends a sign that we are becoming less connected to each other, and more drawn towards technology?
I have always been a skeptic when it comes to our use of, and eventually our addiction to technology. Technology was supposed to bring us the promise of a better life, with more perks, and more time to spend with friends and family. Instead, technology is slowly dividing us, acting as a virtual wedge that slowly pulls us away from each other. It’s for this reason that I got rid of my smartphone, and went back to a 10-year old cellphone...
... one that doesn’t talk to me, or give me sports scores, or asks me how I’m feeling today - I’ll save those answers for a real person, thank you very much.