In the movie Her we are treated to a vision of a near-future society in which a new operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) demonstrates such a competent degree of consciousness that not only could it (or rather, she) easily pass a Turing test, but the protagonist of the movie (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with her.
Although this is far from the first visualization of an artificial lifeform (depending on how you define it you could go back to Frankenstein or Greek myth where the gods take human form) the way the movie (directed by Spike Jonze) handles the day-to-day interaction makes a big difference. The OS is not physically present, even in image form (no floating faces etc). Like HAL in 2001 (another obvious precursor) you interact via voice control, speaking in natural sentences. The encounter becomes a conversation with a friend.
A couple of months ago Amazon offered the opportunity to sign up for a new gadget called the Echo (shown above). It’s a solid cylindrical device that operates via voice control (and an associated app), and promises to learn as you continue to talk to it. It can play the radio, your music, give you a news briefing (it’s connected to the Internet of course) or answer factual questions. I thought I’d get one and try it out.
The Echo (or “Alexa” as you must call her, somewhat cutely after the Alexandrian Library) is far from being the Her OS. You can be flexible in how you ask for something (it doesn’t just respond to set phrases). You can set where you want your news to come from, and it can play any radio station on TuneIn. It can do basic math, and can translate words into other languages (although the result only appears in the app). It can tell you a joke or connect via Bluetooth to your mobile device. But you certainly can’t hold a conversation, though you might express feelings for it.
My own feelings at the moment are of ambivalence. It’s a pretty exciting piece of technology which is obviously useful. I keep thinking of improvements for the next version, or an upgrade. Alexa should be able to read to you from a book you own on the Kindle. Connecting via your phone it should be able to track you and provide directions and locational information. She should be available in all rooms throughout the house. In fact, she should be part of the house, remotely controlling lights, temperatures, surveillance cameras… and you can see where this might go (think: Skynet). Right now, it saves your voice commands (where? who has access to them?) in order to learn. (You can delete them but it gets less smart if you do since it/she learns your voice and tastes.) It complicates any notion of privacy.
The word smart is overused (and incorrectly used since many dumb things are called smart) but Alexa is clearly another algorithmic construction of our experience. By “experience” I mean the way we encounter the world, and what is available, and crucially not available, to us. Not everything is available to us–in any circumstance–but it becomes all the more critical when you are increasingly dependent on particular sources. There is a vast amount of information out there–this is the promise of Big Data. But it is increasingly channelized and hierarchically findable. These asymmetries are a Grand Challenge of our times, and increase daily with increasing prevalence of “software sorted” and Big Data living.