For millennia, humans worked with tools. But whether it is the old hammer or today’s toaster, we don’t declare “I love you” to them. But some 500,000 owners have asked their gadget, Amazon’s Alexa, to marry them.
Alexa, Google Home and other digital assistants called “bots” are the 21st century tools that make life easier, much the way electrical appliances did in the 20th century. In India and Japan, we dedicate a day to express our gratitude to tools. This is a beautiful tradition celebrating our inter-connectedness and dependence on even inanimate objects for our success. But however grateful we are to dishwashers and washing machines for sparing us daily drudgery, I doubt we want them as life partners.
But tools are morphing from objects into humans. Enabling this metamorphosis is that tools now have a “voice”. They can speak. They also have voice recognition capabilities. Bots understand you and answer your needs. You don’t even have to push buttons or type commands, you just call out her name, and Bot is at your service. The utterly human experience of dialogue is now possible between humans and machines. The bot sits unassumingly in your living room or kitchen counter, a bottle-sized minimalist cylinder that neither has a face nor can move—unlike robots and sinister humanoids. Bot is brilliantly unobtrusive, neither threatening nor creepy. She also has an effective non-verbal communication technique—her LED ring lights up in your direction to acknowledge you have got her attention. And then she faithfully executes orders or answers questions: “Please play Game of Thrones episode 10 on TV”; “Is it going to rain today?” “Book Uber for 9.30”; “Who is Marine Le Pen?” Wi-Fi enabled Bot is synced to your other devices and accesses Wikipedia and other internet sources. Now costing only $150, bots, like smartphones, will soon become a must-have home device. In the old days, bosses had PAs. Now we can all have our Das.
When devices listen and speak, a relationship begins to form. This results not from the bots’ insidious power, but from our tendency to humanise everything—from pets to technology. Owners wish their bots “Good Morning” and say “Thank You” after a request has been met. Human courtesy. Over time, dependency, gratitude and existential loneliness can take digital relationships to the extreme—especially when more and more young and old live alone with no one to talk to.
A field in Artificial Intelligence called “Deep Learning” takes these bots to another level of sophistication. The bots grow in your home. They grow in their knowledge of you. They are constantly assimilating and processing data about you, listening and learning to serve you better. As more and more bots come into people’s homes, they form “neural networks” much the same way the human brain gathers, connects and processes data. Bots soon know what you like and detest, how you live, work, play… even think. This is addictively convenient. But also a bit dystopian. Is Little Bot a Big Brother in disguise? It raises issues of data monetisation, privacy risks and misuse. Welcome to the era of data capitalism.
Earlier, gadgets came alive with electricity. Now they are reincarnating with cognitive powers. So you have smart fridges reminding you to shop, hairbrushes warning if your strokes are damaging, toothbrushes signalling molars not accessed, shoes telling what’s wrong with your gait. Surrounded by bots and smart gadgets, are we humans destined to become dumber and lazier? A more fundamental moral question is: what about the 1.2 billion people who live without hairbrushes, shoes and electricity?