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Is Alexa Dangerous? - The Atlantic
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The Unheard Female Voice
Backstage has the most jobs, the best tools, and expert advice to help you get cast. Join Now. Search Casting Calls. Looking to cast your project? Backstage will help you find the best talent with easy-to-use tools. By , according to another research firm, Ovum, there will be almost as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as people.
It took about 30 years for mobile phones to outnumber humans. Alexa and her ilk may get there in less than half that time. These and other tech corporations have grand ambitions. They want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, office, car. In the near future, everything from your lighting to your air-conditioning to your refrigerator, your coffee maker, and even your toilet could be wired to a system controlled by voice. The company that succeeds in cornering the smart-speaker market will lock appliance manufacturers, app designers, and consumers into its ecosystem of devices and services, just as Microsoft tethered the personal-computer industry to its operating system in the s.
Alexa alone already works with more than 20, smart-home devices representing more than 3, brands. Her voice emanates from more than third-party gadgets, including headphones, security systems, and automobiles. Yet there is an inherent appeal to the devices, too—one beyond mere consumerism. Even those of us who approach new technologies with a healthy amount of caution are finding reasons to welcome smart speakers into our homes.
The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed.
When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level. Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts.
Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious nonpersons, but their words give them personality and social presence. And indeed, these devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce or nytimes. We communicate with them, not through them. The Assistant pulls out of his memory bank one of the many responses to this statement that have been programmed into him.
For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives.
What will that be like? The point of the Dash Wand was obvious: It made buying products from Amazon easier. The point of the Echo was less obvious. Why would consumers buy a device that gave them the weather and traffic conditions, functioned as an egg timer, and performed other tasks that any garden-variety smartphone could manage? But once Reid had set up an Echo in her kitchen, she got it. Her daughters, 10 and 7 at the time, instantly started chattering away at Alexa, as if conversing with a plastic cylinder was the most natural thing in the world.
You may be skeptical of a conversion narrative offered up by a top Amazon executive.
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The basic appeal of the Echo, she said, is that it frees your hands. Echo owners can wander around living rooms, kitchens, and offices doing this or that while requesting random bits of information or ordering toilet paper or an Instant Pot, no clicks required. No need to walk over to the desktop and type a search term into a browser; no need to track down your iPhone and punch in your passcode.
Frictionlessness is the goal, anyway. For the moment, considerable friction remains. It really is remarkable how often smart speakers—even Google Home, which often outperforms the Echo in tests conducted by tech websites—flub their lines. My sister-in-law got her Echo early, in Catrin Morris, a mother of two who lives in Washington, D.
She had to fight the urge to whip out her smartphone to answer some tantalizing question, such as: Which came first, the fork, the spoon, or the knife?