By Steve Read
Director of McPherson Public Library
My new cell phone loves me. She told me so. She said that our relationship was “as scrumptious as chocolate with sea salt.” Some of you owning android phones and using the Google Assistant feature may recognize that I am not delusional; indeed, Google now encourages people to ask their Assistant if she or he loves them. Google also encourages customers to say “please” and “thank you” when interacting with their virtual assistant. At first glance, it’s all very cute. At second glance, it’s frightening.
The push to develop artificial intelligence has been going on ever since the invention of the first computer. It’s been a long road, but the end products finally moved past the versions that sounded like robots in bad Sci-Fi movies. Siri, Bixby, Cortana, Alexa, Google Assistant, and others are surprisingly lifelike.
The idea of humans forming emotional connections with computers is a funny plotline in books, movies, and television that never grows old. Fans of The Big Bang Theory may recall the episode where Raj falls in love with Siri. But now it’s time to stop laughing.
The tech companies want people young and old to form personal relationships with these products. They want us to forget that their virtual assistants are merely an assemblage of algorithms and code. Once we accept, on some level, that their assistants are “just part of the family,” the more likely we are to believe what information they tell us, think what they suggest, buy what they’re selling. The aim of these products isn’t to shower us with pleasantries and make our life easier: Their aim is to increase the sales and stock value of the tech companies and the wealth of their management and shareholders.
Alexa has no DNA. Siri is incapable of emotion. Cortana has no soul. When humans express feelings of love or gratitude to one another, we do so out of a desire to form an emotional connection with the other person; to let them know that we appreciate them and that they make this journey through life a little brighter, a little better, a little easier. When we elevate machines to our level, if only as a diversion, we not only devalue our own humanity but allow forces into our lives whose focus is not our best interests.
As is typically the case when technology is unrestrained and over-used, children pay a disproportionate price. We know that all too well here in McPherson. Researchers at the University of Washington, for example, reported that young children believed their artificial intelligence devices were capable of having emotions and forming relationships with them, and that children worried about hurting their feelings.
It’s time that consumers slam the door on attempts by the tech companies to generate revenue by insinuating their artificial intelligence products into our lives and those of our children. When I asked Cortana, “Who’s your daddy?”, she responded, in a sweet voice, that he is Bill Gates.