Beware the digital butler

| June 23, 2020

Most of us claim, rather blithely, that ‘everyone is equal’ without thinking about what that means. We tend to believe that we are equal to others and therefore have the same rights and entitlements. However, a little thought would indicate that some are cleverer than others, some are good with their brains, their hands, their abilities to lead or manipulate data etc.

We are aware that we have been and, indeed are manipulated by industrial psychologists to buy or do certain things and yet we accept this situation as part of living in a democracy. More people are not only using, but are relying on digital and smart assistants. Most of these have a female characteristic designed to make us feel more accepting and relaxed (Apple’s Siri (2010), Microsoft’s Cortana (2014), Amazon’s Echo (2015) and Google Assistant (2016)).

The BBC’s Beeb has a north English male accent because the English have always assumed the North is a bit behind the rest of the country in the same way the Irish and Tasmanians are assumed to be a bit slow here. These characteristics are all designed to make the assistants more acceptable by lowering our rather natural fear of rogue robots.

In spite of all this we are slowly allowing robotics to take over out lifestyles and even our lives. The Americans and Chinese have shown how easy it is to take over the power supplies, manufacturing capabilities and even water distribution of other countries. If another political system succeeded in accessing our computer controlled infrastructure – traffic lights, communications, GPS, etc we would be quite severely inconvenienced.

While robotics certainly make life easier by taking over the boring, repetitive tasks such as sowing seeds, building car bodies, spray painting and even building; when we allow them to determine a person’s health or use them in unmanned, armed drones with facial recognition attribution then I believe we should take a step back and think where this is leading.

It is a very human trait to accept animals and objects close to us as having characteristics and attributes which are clearly impossible – teddy bears, cats and dogs as intelligent, loving companions able to understand our innermost thoughts and feelings. If we are not very careful, we can carry this trait on to our digital assistant (‘Hey Siri, what can I do during lockdown? I’m bored witless’).

I was taught at school never to have an advertising station playing in the background. The reasoning behind this is that the conscious mind can filter out obvious half truths and nonsense. However, the unconscious mind will accept everything as fact and store it away as such, so we would find ourselves buying a particular product without consciously knowing why.

Smart assistants may soon play an even more intrusive role in our everyday affairs. Google’s experimental technology Duplex, for instance, allows users to ask the assistant to make phone calls on their behalf to perform tasks such as booking a hair appointment.

This is why I feel we should be very careful about why and how we use a personal assistant. So far, I have been free of computer generated problems but the downside is that my natural paranoia has increased considerably.


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