Do Robot Assistants Lack Boundaries?

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Cortana, our robotic hero from the HALO universe is one of the most perfect robot assistants, always there watching your back — the ever vigilant friend who keeps superheroes like me (wink) from getting in trouble.

When did our personal technology devices become eavesdroppers? As Clive Thompson from Wired advised us, be careful about what we say because “the cloud might be listening.”  The robot assistants are soaking up everything we do and say! And as a raving privacy nutcase, I was drawn to Thompson’s missive like mayo to a ham sandwich.  I am one of those folks who doesn’t use Siri, Apple’s Robotic assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana Amazon’s Alexa because…

I would fall in love with them!

I’ll be honest, I want someone like Cortana in my life.  An all knowing robotic minion and friend who really cares about me.   Unfortunately, this kind of vigilant friend is not what we see evolving in the back rooms of Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to believe that the demigods of Silicon Valley have my best interests at heart.  I want to believe that they don’t care what I think, or who I might be willing to vote for, or what kinds of unhealthy snacks I keep in my fridge.

Thompson’s editorial highlights the fact that it is sometimes very difficult to tell when these robot assistant technologies are not recording your casual conversations to the cloud.  Why, for example, would anyone want to listen in on the intimate conversations between me and my dog?  Is it possible that there is some potential for gain that can be discerned from my dog’s hidden penchant for nearly empty peanut butter jars?

What would you think of me, if I boldly told you that my dog has nothing to hide and nothing to fear from Cortana and her sisters?  After all, I hear the “I have nothing to hide” phrase from so many of my friends that I want to believe that it is true.

So…. What’s the problem?

In November of 2015, we all learned that the new Hello Barbie doll (a wireless toy) could be hacked, enabling some unknown stranger to invade your child’s room whenever they wanted.  The potential threat captured news headings despite the fact that baby monitors had a similar, and perhaps more pervasive vulnerability.   Interestingly, neither of these technologies have the reach, power and pervasiveness of Cortana and her sisters.

To be clear, the latest generation of assistive technology is truly incredible.  That said, the power of these technologies, when combined with what is already possible should truly give us pause.

If we think about it carefully, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are all what we might call data driven companies.   Although their capabilities are somewhat different, all of these companies have all become powerful, based upon their ability to understand what we want, and when we want it.  Using technologies that have been under development for decades these companies already know: when we use our computers; where we use our computers; what we search for with our computers; what applications we routinely use; what kinds of things we enjoy; what kinds of things annoy us; what kinds of things make us truly angry; what we buy (and how quickly we move from thinking about buying to actually making a purchase.  In short, these companies already know a heck of a lot about us — and until now, they have done so without appearing to be creepy.

Contrary to what you might think, I predict that giving robots a voice will in fact make interaction with them even less creepy.   There are lots of reasons for this, but I think one of the greatest reasons for this is that we already share a lot of information with disembodied humans through our telephones and cellular phones.   By integrating voice data with the information that our computers already collect about us, our robotic partners can begin to associate emotional content with our behavior.  Our robotic friends will know when we are sad and can use a quick pick up — or when we are angry and need some time to cool off.   They might even be able to pull up our favorite music channel in order to reshape our mood.

It has been said that “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”  This adage will prove especially true with respect to our robotic assistants.   As these technologies improve, they will be so useful, so helpful and so keenly aware of our needs that it will be difficult not to fall in love with them.   With that in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we know who they are working for.