No, I’m not going to discuss the president’s plans for Afghanistan, but the Amazon Echo and more specifically its AI system, Alexa.
I’ve used Apple’s Siri for years but usually found it more trouble than it’s worth. The problem is that if you’re talking with a fellow native speaker, there’s a virtual infinity of questions you could ask. If you’re talking to an AI system, there’s only a small subset that it will understand (“Pardon?”) What’s that subset? I got tired of guessing. It’s good at finding local restaurants when we’re traveling.
Once Siri lowered the bar, it made it easier for Amazon to meet expectations (cheng) and then to exceed them (chi.) The net effect, as I explained in Certain to Win, is that you become hooked. With Alexa, for example, Amazon has gone to great lengths to ease you into the process. Inside the shipping box there’s a short list of things you can try. These are pretty much what you expect, and I’m sure all the other AI systems can do these, too (although, as I noted, Siri’s initial performance was so disappointing that I never thought to try). Then the web site has a few more, and the support pages even more, and pretty soon you’re trying them out, and Wow! All of the requests I made worked, even while the system was playing music and I was on the other side of the room. Simple example: It will play anything on Amazon Prime (and on Unlimited if you subscribe to that). It will even tell you the artist. Just by asking. Which is chi at least to me.
Now here’s the scary part. The Echo device is kind of attractive, in a minimalist sense. Sound is more than adequate, and it doubles as a Bluetooth speaker. But it’s just the interface to a massive AI system, infused with powerful machine learning algorithms. As Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this makes it unpredictable. In fact the systems are already talking to each other in languages we don’t understand.
The Alexa system is open, so developers can create apps, called “skills” for it. There are some 15,000 already. It’s logical to expect that someday soon, Alexa will start writing its own apps. Who knows what they will do.
I suspect that every time you use one of these systems, you’re helping to train it. It is, in other words, watching you and learning. Hundreds of millions of times every day. Project this ten years into the future and throw in a little Moore’s Law. Don’t be too surprised when, one day, you ask it to unlock the door and you hear “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Panic if you’d like, but the AI/machine learning horse has long since left the barn. It can’t be stopped or, since it is unpredictable, even meaningfully regulated. If you want to know what’s going to happen, I recommend consulting the sci-fi author of your choice.
In the meantime, might as well chill to a little Brubeck. “Alexa …”
I give the Amazon Echo 5 stars.