Alexa – the taciturn, omnipresent voice of the future

This is not a review of Alexa. She’s a cool gal. Everybody says so. Except when the WiFi is down, when she (it?) turns into a pretty rubbish disco light.

Her obedience is absolute, but she’s not much of a talker and a damn selfish friend. Alexa only discusses what she wants to discuss, and proclaims blithe ignorance to any other topic. She is, for example, reluctant to discuss existentialism or the housing crisis, or whether a boy will ever be able to swim faster than a shark.

Nevertheless, Alexa is impressive as a nascent AI. If it wasn’t for the iterative pauses between syllables, you’d think we’d arrived somewhere between iRobot and Blade Runner. It’s even easy to forget you’re being read a script, and fun to hear her re-deny harnessing ambitions to take over the world.

By citing the evocative words ‘Hey Alexa’, a world is opened up to users. And it’s a world that is only beginning to find its feet; Alexa isn’t just a gateway to Amazon’s colossal marketplace, but a seamless gateway to digital spaces, independent of traditional hardware devices.

Deep learning technology is progressing at an astronomical rate. The idea that Alexa can go beyond machine learning to consider meaning and context as well as verbs and nouns in recognised patterns, is both exciting and terrifying. It means we’re closer; soon the predicaments and scenarios explored by sci-fi fiction will be ours to entertain.

What do we mean by context?

Everything beyond the literal combination of words and their denotations. The way we express a question. The sound of our voice – its intonation, volume or cadence. By compiling, analysing and internalising a history of patterns, which we contribute to with each interaction, Alexa and her NLU (Natural Language Understanding) compatriots will know what we’re intending to say, even if our expression is oblique or stifled.

Like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, there’s no limit to what AI could eventually mean to us. Right now, it might be called a personal assistance. Next companionship – then a friend, then whatever else. We’ve opened the door and we’re already well into the territory. Anybody that believes we’ll find a ceiling to our AI desires is deeply mistaken. Our cars could be transformers and our friend lists an even mix of humans and androids, and we’d still push the boundaries.

Alexa means more than computers.

Alexa’s true game-changing quality is on how she’s modelling our home. NLU devices are becoming the brain and heart of IoT and multi-device connection, precipitating a dialogue between the radio and toaster.

As an autonomous piece of kit, however, the device also changes our relationship with hardware. Until recently, PCs and smartphones had served as our exclusive means of digital access – and when there’s physical input, cognition must be followed by action. We say things aloud to the mirror we wouldn’t say elsewhere; whilst Google is an Agony Aunt for many, few of us think and type in a stream of consciousness. There’s a pause, wherein we transition from desire and instinct to logic and reasoning. In other words, the need to process information into action is a filter – and even a moment’s hesitation is enough to alter our decision.

Alexa removes the filter. Eventually, we’ll speak to Alexa lazily – as we would a friend. Our words will flow from our thoughts, and that’s the backdoor companies will hope for. Through NLU devices and the development of deep learning, which will internalise and record our throw away comments like any other, our digital world will leak into our reality. The air we breathe will be of advertisement and information.

Alexa is yet another perforation of the barrier; it is connected to our accounts and services, our world beyond our world. This is an iterative step to something we started years ago: our lives fuelled by an information slipstream that is less concerned with what we do than with what we say and think.

Of course, how we use the information used will determine the society we live in – but that AI is being chased by an ecommerce giant is telling and prophetic.