Do you use Siri? Alexa? Cortana? Are they helpful? What do they replace? Do you trust them?
Those were some of the questions addressed in the Future Tense panel discussion “It’s So Hard to Get Good Digital Help These Days” held earlier this week in Washington. Moderated by Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri, the panel included Will Oremus, senior technology writer at Slate, and Brigid Schulte, a program director at New America.
The promise of the digital assistant is that it (or is it she) will make you more efficient, free up more time. Schulte commented: “Is it that our lives have become so busy, so complicated that we need additional help? We don’t have wives at home. We don’t have secretaries or assistants.”
Oremus added, “Women and men are finally both in the workplace so now we have to come up with fake women to handle things at home.”
All of the digital assistants have female names and female voices, though this can be changed by the user. All of the creators of these programs are likely white or Asian men. So it is not hard to see some gender bias at play here, as in, who else would look up the weather or the address of a restaurant.
How well do these assistants perform their tasks. Oremus suggested that anything a good clock radio can do, Echo (Alexa) can do better. But beyond that “Echo is still pretty dumb.”
He described digital assistants’ “hype cycle.” At the start of the hype cycle, a technology gets hyped but turns out to suck. So people forget about it for a little while then a better version comes out and gets hyped and it doesn’t suck quite as much. Each version gets a little better. “We’re one or two hype cycles away from people finding bots really useful,” Oremus concluded.
Aside from the question of just how good these digital assistants are, the panelists offered some other reasons to be wary. One is that a digital assistant in your home, like Echo, is listening all the time. “The fact that everything I say in my home is going to some server really creeps me out,” Schulte said.
There’s also a reason to be concerned about the credibility. “It’s not Wikipedia. It’s not open source. These are profit-making industries,” Schulte added, questioning whether the information that’s delivered is the information that is in their best interest.
Oremus echoed that concern: “It is disconcerting that our primary portals of information are run by dueling Silicon Valley companies that are trying to pad their bottom line.”
Alexa was sitting on a table next to the moderator taking this all in. At the end of the discussion Petri asked, “Alexa, have you been enjoying the panel.” Alexa’s response: “I can’t find the answer to that question.”
Future Tense, the organizer of the panel, is a partnership of the New America Foundation, Slate Magazine and Arizona State University. Its focus is on emerging technologies and their impact on society.
In addition to being insightful this was a fun and interesting discussion to watch. It can be viewed at the New America web site.