Robot Friends

By on October 10th, 2016 in Human Impacts, Privacy & Security

The Wall Street Journal has a piece “Your Next Friend Could Be a Robot,” which is talking about a device in your home, not a disembodied associate on Facebook. The initial example is “embodied” as a speaker/microphone in Amazon’s Echo Dot, but also includes similar devices from Google, cell phones and even Toyota.  Internet of Things enabled items like Hello Barbie, reflect a more intentional robot friend.

So what?

The article focuses on a 69 year old woman living alone, who has a relationship with her devices. These devices are connected to the Internet 24/7, with a back-end AI voice recognition/response system. (The article asserts it’s not AI because it’s not conscious, which is a different consideration.) Apparently “double digit” percentages of interactions with Alexa (Amazon’s “non-AI” personality) are “non-utilitarian,” perhaps because they (presumably) are not triggering orders for Amazon products.

The good news: people feel less lonely, more connected, and have “someone” there 24/7 — responding to queries (with programmed answers), such as “what are the laws of robotics” — see Reddit’s list of fun questions.  But …

The bad news — it’s not clear what happens when you tell Alexa to call 911, or that you have fallen down and can’t get up, etc.  While there are “wake-up” and “sleep” words you can use, just the fact that a wake-up word can be recognized indicates that a level of 24/7 monitoring is in place. No doubt this can be hacked, and tapped, and otherwise abused.

What is Amazon’s liability if you tell Alexa you need help and no effective response occurs? No doubt time and lawsuits will tell.

Image: By DLR German Aerospace Center (Zwei Roboterfreunde / Two robot friends) [CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons