Too busy to love?
In Japan, Minori Takechi, founder of Vinclu Inc, has developed an Avatar that not only can text you, turn on the lights, remind you of your meetings, it is designed to form an emotional bond with you.
Met your unreal girlfriend: Hikari Azuma, the digital assistant that is designed to make you like her. Live with her. Maybe even love her. Whilst Amazon and Google are busy persuading us all of the use value of their digital assistants, Alexa and Google Home, Takechi's company Gatebox has gone one step further by designing “a character born to realize the ‘ultimate return home.’ An ‘ideal bride’ who grows through communication with you.”
Critique of Gatebox's Hikari Azuma abound. Ranging from an unhealthy capitalisation of an out-of-balance labour market characterised by long working hours and a performance culture that makes most wane, to a dangerous romanticisation of loneliness that could spur a further growth in suicide rates, Hikari is either loved or hated.
Hikari is not alone
Hikari is by no means a far-fetched idea that no one believes in. To name but two out of a good handful of others, Microsoft introduced the chatbot Xiaoice in China in 2014 and the chatbot Rinna in Japan in 2015. XiaoIce (meaning Little Ice), already has 660 million registered users in China, Japan, the US, Indonesia and India alone. It too uses its emotional intelligence capability to offer consumers a more "natural experience". So much so that 25 percent of Xiaoice users have told the bot, “I love you.”
What about the data?
The possible reasons for the success of social bots aside, they are undeniably fed with enormous amounts of (very personal) data. From knowing why a person is sad or happy, or statistically learning that people in certain geographical areas respond in this or that way to a greeting, a question or a tune, the owners of these bots sit on information about cohorts of people that no one else does. Even the best quantitative survey will never capture this form of understanding, nor the best anthropologist after years in the field. Bot sends message to user: "when are you coming home?". User replies: "leaving the office now". A simply Q&A leaving the bot now with the possibility to measure commute times, working times, estimate the mood of the user depending on the answer given. The thing is, the users do not own their data. They cannot control how it is used either. For example, how is the data the bot knows about your everyday life, used to target you with advertisements for holidays, sleeping pills, books for the commute, or job advertisements closer to home? Or worse still - will your life opportunities, your career chances even be framed by the digital profiles the bots create on you?
Convenience comes at a price: our privacy and the all important right to be humanGeek Corner
All power to the...companies
Whilst bots have lots of merits, they live off our constant lust for convenience. It is allegedly easier to ask Alexa what meetings you have today than look in your calendar. It is simple to sit at home and order a pizza by speaking to a device than by ordering online. Tim Wu so brilliantly cautioned of the Tyranny of Convenience in his 2018 New York Times article. He cautions:
"Created to free us, it [convenience] can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us."
He continues "The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows." In other words, what Tim Wu is here describing is our dependency on a technology that might make things easier for us, but at the same time is locking us into a submissive acceptance of corporate power over our own privacy and free choice.
Indeed, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are heavily betting that when AI chatbots and personal assistants get smart enough they will change the way people use technology. The current way people use smartphones, accessing dozens of apps to take dozens of different actions, may soon become anachronistic.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella indeed thinks that chat-based interfaces will replace apps as the primary way people use the internet. Already three years ago he predicted , “Bots are like new applications, and digital assistants are meta apps or like the new browsers. And intelligence is infused into all of your interactions. That’s the rich platform that we have.”
Here in the Geek Corner, we wish to flag a warning sign that convenience comes at a price: privacy and the all important right to be you.