Most of us would swat Jiminy Cricket the first time he opened his bony little mouth to patronize us. Shoulder insects that point out things we ought to know might be useful in some circumstances (welcome to the house, Senator — here’s your shoulder insect) but these days they’d be a tough sell for everyday use.
Which makes Alexa, the spirit in Amazon’s Echo machine, all the more perplexing. We’ve invited Amazon’s embryonic but already eerily prescient genius into our homes in the millions. Right now, 16 millions. Unlike other gadgets, this one is alive. It’s growing, it gets more clever by the minute, and whereas today it can remind us of something we may have forgotten, or settle an argument over how many Echos have been sold, that same device is on an ever accelerating trajectory of smartness such that in the near future it will be able to pretty much replace our brains. It’ll have a much more powerful brain than ours. Much smarter ideas. It’ll shift from responding to us, through anticipating us, to instructing us.
Like Jiminy, but in a less raspy, crickety fashion, it’ll second-guess. It might suggest we revisit our way of thinking. Not listen to this, hold that opinion, or vote that way.
I use Alexa to turn on and off the radio, and occasionally — at least twice a year, around daylight saving time — tell me what time it really is. That’s why I invited Alexa into my home. And yet, like Damien in The Omen, I’m coming to realize she is a terrible, growing threat.
She has a global army of computers behind her. She is truly a spirit in the sky, a mouthpiece (and earpiece) of the gods. Like the vice president, she is a conduit, the instrument of a far greater will.
One day we’ll sit in our lead-lined, soundproof basement, isolated from the misanthropic devices scattered about our homes, look back and think “Jiminy Cricket was a blessing compared to this”.
We bought into the idea that Alexa and her relatives will help us out or make us more efficient. Take on some of the more mundane obligations in life on our behalf.
Come on. the last time that happened was when they invented indoor plumbing. Who wouldn’t want that, and after a hundred years’ trial we can be pretty sure there’s little or no downside. But the benefits of computers and their ilk, especially those featuring cloud-based intelligence like Alexa, aren’t so clear cut. They probably create as many problems as they solve; ask an office worker — they don’t make our lives any easier, do they? They displace effort and stress from one place to another, obsolete some tasks and create new ones.
Alexa. It’s even more persuasive than the cricket. It’s convinced you to buy it, install it, to set it up. You learn to use it. It’s so compelling you find yourself excusing its idiosyncrasies. You willingly spend time reading e-mail telling you what it can do this week. You tend to its network connection to avoid the dreaded red ring of dysfunction.
And after all that, what do you do with it? It certainly helps Amazon sell you stuff. You use it for tasks you never thought were necessary at all before; let’s set up a family calendar, you say. I’ll create my shopping lists on it. Thank heavens for Alexa, you exclaim, else I would have had a harder time finding out the lean angle on the Tower of Pisa.