“Hey Alexa, what do you know? Hey Alexa, what can you do? Hey Alexa, are you listening?”
For the last 50 years, CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) has been an outstanding showcase of new technologies. If you’ve innovated a fancy piece of tech, CES is the place to introduce it to the world. The most recent conference took place between the 5th and 6th of January 2017, with corporations from around the world displaying and promoting technology such as virtual reality, AI assistants, drones, 3D printers and more. Although there we many interesting speakers, displays and announcements, one voice spoke louder than all others, and that’s the voice of Alexa, Amazon’s new virtual assistant. Intelligent software that can communicate with our hardware, integrate itself into our lives and make us that bit lazier, is the technology of innovation in today’s market.
At CES this year, it wasn’t about unveiling Alexa and her interface – the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot, to the world, it was more about what she could be used for. Amazon has been following the lead of Google, by giving away their software for free to device manufacturers (which is what Google did with the Android technology, hence why it’s now in devices such as watches and TV’s, as well as a vast number of mobile phones), so now hundreds of innovative technology companies have access to the technology behind Alexa, and they’ve been creating some amazing software. Amazon have purposefully designed software that can be altered and adapted to suit the needs of various manufacturers, enabling them to create apps and add-ons. For example, Ford recently announced they want to put Alexa into their cars by 2020 to allow the user to remotely control them – to a certain extent, and that’s just the start.
In this report, I want to draw on knowledge I’ve learned from this entire Media Technologies module, using aspects of the readings, the seminars, the lectures AND articles/news stories I’ve been collecting, seeing and sharing on the module Facebook page. By doing so, I’ll be drawing on knowledge for a range of sources, theorists and thinkers from a range of backgrounds. For example, I’ll be using Mark Andrejevic to discuss the usefulness of metadatification, Thatcher et al to think about big data and how it can be used, why have Amazon decided to launch the Echo? I’ll also be discussing some interesting points made my McLuhan and Manovich relating to meta-mediums, technological ecology and databases. You can see from my blog posts about this module that it’s been a rollercoaster ride of thought provoking materials and ideas that have forced me to think about the privacy implications of the technology around me and ask questions about where these issues with go in the future. I want this discussion to focus on what choices we must make as consumers now and what knowledge we need to find for ourselves in order to fully understand the implications of using technology in 21st Century and beyond.
So after seeing the Echo and Echo Dot on the Amazon website for a few weeks, I decided to purchase one for my Dad, for his 50th birthday. I should explain that, my Dad isn’t particularly tech-savvy, he’s just about mastered making calls on his mobile and sending and receiving texts and emails but, that’s about it really. For everything else, he just asks the nearest friend, colleague or family member, since it’s pretty much a given that they’ll know more about technology than he does. This is making my Dad sound like a complete numpty so I’ll point out that he’s a genius. He can fix anything, build anything, knows all those things that stereotypical Dad men are supposed to know. I think if he had the time and the patience, he could get to grips with technology a bit better, understand more and do more but, to be fair, he doesn’t really need to do more than he does!
Recently, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the results of the challenge he set himself for 2016 – to create an AI interface that would control his house and schedule etc. for him, he wanted to create something based on the JARVIS character seen in Iron Man. Not only did he succeed in creating this amazing piece of technology that can keep track of his appointments, calendar, babysit for him, provide him with updates and control his home, he also got Morgan Freeman to voice the AI. This demonstration of AI technology came at just the right time for Amazon, who have been busy marketing their Echo system.
Although I couldn’t give my Dad anything near as impressive and complicated as a JARVIS system, I could get him an Echo Dot. I mentioned before that he’s not very tech-savvy, and usually relies on others to find things out online, setup technical devices and gadgets etc. for him. I’ve spent 20 years telling him to Google things and, if he’s at the computer he will but, if he’s at home, he’s got to find his phone, find his glasses, find the Google search icon on his phone, slowly type in his query and so on, it’s easier for him to just ask the nearest person, who is usually attached to a mobile phone or tablet anyway (that makes it sound a little like the Matrix and that wasn’t my intention!). I figured that with Alexa, he wouldn’t need to ask anyone anymore – he could just ask her.
So, here’s the technical part. The Amazon Echo and its little sister, the Amazon Echo Dot, are “intelligent virtual assistant AI’s”, that use voice recognition technology, they can be linked to range of hardware and software such as heating systems, apps as well as services like Spotify and Uber. Both devices are relatively small – the Echo being about the size of a 500ml bottle of Coca-Cola, and the Dot is around the size of a hockey puck. They comprise primarily of a speaker, with a light ring around the top of the device that activates when Alexa is listening or responding to the user. There’s also buttons on the top – the Echo has buttons to switch off the microphone and turn the device on/off, whilst the Dot also has volume controlling buttons.
These voice controlled devices can be placed all over the house and will re-act to instructions when the user says the awake word – “Alexa”. The Echo will listen to the user’s commands, stream the audio to cloud storage through Amazon, Alexa is then programmed to recognise and understand the request, and search the database and the internet for a correct response.
It could be argued that the Echo, and the Alexa software behind it, form a meta-medium. In much the same way that a computer is a meta-medium, as argued by Lev Manovich in his book Software Takes Command. Manovich stated that we are now able to create many more meta-mediums, rather than new devices that perform one or two tasks, but rather we as users, expect more from technology now. The device includes technology such as speakers for sound, microphones for voice recognition, Wi-Fi access to enable the device to search the internet to answer questions. Within the media, single connections are not important, it’s the ecology of the technology that’s important, as Marshall McLuhan argues, no medium works alone. Technology can be seen as a network of actors, with constant interplay between various technologies – both hardware and software, as well as people. Alexa couldn’t function alone, it’s the network she is part of that allows her to do what she does – by connecting to the internet she can search for things, connecting her to services such as Uber, Spotify, Amazon and Just Eat allows the user to perform other tasks, she can only work with the information she’s given from elsewhere and the user.
Within an ecology, there are elements of competition. Within the animal and plant kingdoms, there’s natural selection, the strongest member of the pack survives, the creatures and trees that can adapt to their surroundings and keep the competition at bay are safe. The world of technology works in the same way. In terms of voice recognition and AI intelligence, Alexa has some stiff competition. Alexa was the first voice assistant to be given a bespoke device – the Echo, rather than just living in a smart phone or tablet. As we’ve seen from CES, Amazon have allowed innovators access to the technology behind Alexa, ensuring that other manufacturers and inventive corporations are creating products that will work in connection with Alexa. This puts the Echo way ahead of the game in terms of its competition, not only is the technology first to market, it’s also giving those within the industry the chance to work with the technology, rather than against it, if they choose to, presenting us and Amazon with an infinite number of opportunities for the future.
What the Echo does is very simple, but it relies on vast amounts of information and data, to give the best user experience. This data is collected through the internet, from what information the user gives Alexa and from the apps and services connected to the device. It’s clear to see how big data works as a commodity, if you own the data, you own the means to operate and sell devices like the Echo, without access to that data, they cannot function. “The data stored in a database is organised for fast search and retrieval by a computer,” (Manovich, 2001: 219) in the case of Alexa, the data she needs is stored on the database of the internet, she accesses this information, then stores it on her own database, this information then reaches the user through a response from Alexa, as well as through a ‘card’ on the Alexa app.
“Media is being liberated from traditional physical storage media.” (Manovich, 2001: 73) Increasingly, we are seeing devices that have no physical storage space or information, but rather rely solely on information stored elsewhere, media no longer relies on storage space, hard drives and memory banks, but rather than receive this information through connections with other actors within the network. Thatcher et al, recently published an article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, discussing ‘big data’, how it’s used and the privacy implications that come with it. One interesting comparison the authors make is “big data as profit-laden, akin to how scientific data are theory-laden.” Here Thatcher et all are stating that there’s big profit to be had in big data, Alexa from Amazon prove this theory, there’s method behind their release of this product. Why would a distribution/commerce company, release a product that can communicate and interact with their customers? It’s stands to reason that the more data Amazon have about their customers and target customers, the better, they can use that to better target those groups for advertising and marketing.
McLuhan argues that the “medium is the message”, it’s the meta data and usage of Alexa that’s important, when we use it, how often etc. rather than what we ask. In his chapter of Unmanned Drones and Aerial Systems – Theorizing Drones and Droning Theory, Mark Andrejevic, a leading theorist within the realms of surveillance and privacy, argues that, “When Google scans and analyses, for example, it transforms the content into data about the content” he adds, “this process of ‘metadatification’ – whereby a message is reconfigured in data about itself – comes to stand as the post-ideological or post-textual moment taken to its logical conclusion.” (Andrejevic, 2015:35) In other words, if Alexa knows that I always ask about the weather in the morning, the Echo, and Amazon, can draw conclusions about why that might be, it’s the context of the message, rather than the contents, that Amazon requires, it’s noticing patterns of behaviour and registering repeated words or themes that’s important and can be analysed. And even if Alexa does permanently store a record of what we ask, surely that’s only the same as Google keeping our internet history?
It’s more the idea that Alexa can listen anytime that bothers people. Amazon has attempted to address any concerns users might have with regards to the microphones installed on the Echo, they state that the user can wipe the ‘cards’ on the Alexa app. In line with the Right to be Forgotten legislation (at least within the UK), this wipes any records that specific device has in terms of what questions have been asked and what answers have been given however, by erasing this information, the device will know less about the user, and therefore, according to Amazon, give a less accurate and thorough user experience. Interaction data is THE data advertisers want to get their hands on.
On one side, Alexa embodies what Mark Weiser described as an age of ubiquitous computing, where technology fades into the background of our lives and the Age of Things sees us begin to add billions of devices to the internet – this device marks the start of that revolution. However, what is the price we pay for technology that is everywhere, fun, easy to use and is there to make our lives easier? When there are devices in our lives that can listen, buy, speak, store our details and data, link to our friends and family and more, is any of our information private anymore? We want to be impressed by technology but we’re not willing to compromise, we want technology to make our lives easier but aren’t willing to accept that there will be drawbacks.
Nobody wants to sacrifice their privacy any more than is necessary, especially when the governments we elect bring out legislation that allows them to gather information from tech giants and Internet Service Providers about our browsing habits – the Investigatory Powers Bill. So, do the pros of this technology, outweigh the cons? We may bleat about privacy and surveillance but, if we do our research, understand the implications of the technology around us and make conscious decisions about whether to use it, our privacy is in our own hands.
The reason I’m explaining some of the more technical aspects and the features of the Echo is because I don’t want those who have them and use them to be monkeys with weapons, uneducated users of potentially dangerous technologies, Alexa is barely a few months old, and yet we’re already seeing articles like THIS, because people do not understand the technology. With the right actors in her network and personalised programming – which Amazon allow corporations to do, the power of Alexa could be potentially unlimited – in cars, fully controlling our homes and schedules, in schools, in appliances and more. We need to understand the technology we use, understand what Alexa does and how she does it, to use technology in the right way and for the right reasons. If we know all the facts, we can make informed decisions… And decide whether we want to have Alexa in our lives.