Alexa, Should We Trust You?

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The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.

Dawn of the Virtual Assistant

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Allowing someone to do your vetting requires trust. I applaud x.ai for including, at the bottom of each of Amy’s emails, the information that Amy Ingram is a form of artificial intelligence; if my correspondents had twigged to this fact on their own, they might have felt like Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Additionally, I loved that Amy sent me copies of all her correspondence for the first three meetings she set up for me. It was reassuring that Amy did not not deploy the locutions “No problem” or its hideous offspring “N.P.”

But the more I used Amy, the more I saw that she can be relied on for finding a mutually convenient time between parties, but not much more.

Siri, Cortana, And Why Our Smartphone Assistants Have Such Weird Names

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Tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are making calculated bets that intelligent personal assistants are the future… The most obvious similarity among many digital personal assistants is that they sound like women, even though our robot friends are decidedly gender neutral… Many of these helper bots also have distinctly feminine voices to go along with their girly names.

Obviously, these companies want us to think of our disembodied servant companions as women. Since most of these programs end up doing what amounts to secretarial work, that fits into cultural stereotypes of who should be doing that kind of work…