This week, Amazon put out a four-minute online video advertisement to scare the masses featuring their newest piece of smart technology, Echo.
In the ad, the father of an idyllic family receives a package in the mail, which he unveils to be a black cylindrical speaker that he calls Alexa. In oddly clunky expositional dialogue, Dad explains that “Alexa” is an always on and always listening Bluetooth speaker that can tell you the time, the weather, read you news, etc. Basically, Alexa is a more evolved and sophisticated version of Apple’s Siri.
The rest of the ad shows the family interacting with the device, asking it to tell them jokes, record items for a shopping list and to spell the word “cantaloupe,” among others.
In what is arguably the creepiest part of an already resoundingly uncomfortable video, the youngest daughter of the family narrates over the visual of her parents dancing to a love song playing from the cylinder, “with everything Echo can do, it’s really become part of the family.”
It is all very reminiscent of the late-90s Disney flick “Smart House.” Along with that connection comes a fear that tip-toes in the mind of even the most ardent techie: the fear of this technology gaining self-awareness or artificial consciousness.
Perhaps I’m alone in this, but if we weren’t so far away from April, I would have half-expected the last minute to reveal it was a prank, highlighted with “Alexa” being found in a compromising situation with the father or back-talking his wife.
Part of that expectation might come from the fact that this is truly groundbreaking technology that we have been experiencing within the past few years, though it was almost unbelievable just a short time ago. A personal assistant exists on our phones, computers and peripheral devices that can communicate with us.
It seems incredibly complex on the surface, but putting a dictionary in a device and teaching it to search Wikipedia isn’t as earth-shattering as we see it in our minds. Even so, there are inherent dangers (or perceived dangers) to this technology, namely the all-seeing-eye, or in this case, microphone.
We heard the same arguments when the Xbox One was released with its always-active voice commands. We heard those arguments after the introduction of “Ok Google” on Android phones. It is very easy for an even slightly cynical mind to see these innovations as a potential for invasion of privacy and to recognize how valuable this candid data could be for a company like Amazon.
While I can not say Amazon did themselves any favors dispelling this chill-factor in their ad campaign, I do tend to land on the other side of the mass-hysteria fence. While it is true that Amazon and other services like it may utilize user data to more efficiently market products to its customers, I see this as the natural form of progression of marketing in this new age of technology.
In short, it is inevitable. There is the potential for abuse with every new product, in the same way that television scared people with thoughts of mind-control and brain rot. It is up to the consumer to draw the line, but not without definitive proof that an injustice has been served. It has not been firmly proposed to stop this technology, but I can see a time in which this healthy paranoia grows into something larger, halting development of these devices that most likely serve no more sinister purpose than to make our lives easier.