The concept of "Alexa everywhere" isn't so far-fetched.
When you consider that just this past month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the third richest person in the world with a net worth of $84 billion, it's also quite possible to fund Alexa even more--to make the bot more powerful and much, much smarter.
The widely-used voice assistant on the Amazon Echo speaker is now used by more than 10 million people. You can control the temperature in your house, start a car in your garage, and turn on the lights...all by voice. Yet, lurking inside the speaker is a highly connected robotic aid, one that can answer questions, tell you baseball scores, and open your garage door. It's a robot, one that will only get smarter, more prevalent, and (more important than anything) something we trust...maybe a little too much.
If that sounds a little scary, you're right.
If it sounds a little like a robot army, you're also on the right track.
I have three different Amazon speakers in my house.There's one in my living room, one by my bed, and one in the kitchen. For me, Alexa is already everywhere.
If Alexa is embedded into everyday appliances--say, your refrigerator, a drone you control by voice, a bike lock, your automated lawn-mower, or maybe your own synapses--it could form into a vast artificial intelligence network unlike anything we have ever seen.
"Alexa, how much milk do we have?"
"Alexa, take a picture of my entire neighborhood from the drone."
"Alexa, open my bike lock."
"Alexa, mow the lawn."
"Alexa, what is my current blood sugar level?"
These ideas are not far-fetched at all. There could be 100 robots in my house, all powered by Amazon. And Bezos could easily fund this expansion.
It's one thing when the Alexa controls my house, which is becoming increasingly likely. It's another when Alexa controls everything in my life.
Imagine how this will work. Alexa will know more about my home, my car, my workplace, my family, and my dental records than any living person. Chuck Klosterman noted in his book about the future that the internet could make it possible someday for us to not have to remember anything. We'd hand the memory keys to a sentient bot. Oops.
If you think the idea of a robot army that could turn against us someday is ridiculous, I have two things to say. One is: You're right. It is. The other is: What if the ridiculous was possible? What if a slight coding error in a robot was all it took? What if an incredibly pervasive robot platform like Alexa could be used in a nefarious way?
I've written about this before, but a theorist named Eliezer Yudkowsky once made a really interesting observation. If robots become incredibly common in the medical field, what is stopping them from poisoning us all? A futurist named Jared Ficklin suggested something less morbid but just as frightening--that virtual assistants could slowly kill us by suggesting we eat unhealthy food over a long period of time.
You can take the next step from there: Robots could misdiagnose us, start a house on fire by mistake, tell us to drive off of a bridge, or much worse.
Usually, anyone who mentions the robot apocalypse adds a big asterisk--that robots only do what they are designed to do. That was true 10 or 20 years ago. Today, adaptive intelligence is alive and well. A self-driving car is constantly monitoring every situation, adjusting its own speed, direction, and angle without direct input from the driver. Alexa may be processing voice-based commands using the cloud today, helping you buy a USB cable on Amazon.com, but eventually most of the voicebots like Apple Siri and Google's Assistant will learn from us. They will adapt. They will evolve. That's scary.
Bots who know everything and control everything? Sounds a little precarious.
Mark Batterson, who is not exactly a futurist but does write about thoughtful topics, suggests in his latest book that any living organism must constantly learn faster than the current rate of change or it will die. This also applies to technology. Robots could one day adapt beyond their original specifications, possibly entering self-preservation mode.
Does that mean the end for all of us?
My prediction is that Alexa (or some other highly intelligent bot from Google, Microsoft, or Apple) will know more about us than any living person. This assistant will know what we like to eat, when we get up for breakfast, where we like to hang out after work, and what time we usually go to bed. Alexa will become more than an assistant, too. She will become our clone, learning so much about our preferences and knowledge level that she could fill in for us at a meeting or drive our car home from the car wash.
She will also become smarter than us. And soon.
Now imagine that 200 million people use Alexa in this way. Jeff Bezos and his $84 billion could help make Alexa a pretty compelling avatar. Once we depend on a bot that is incredibly pervasive and super-smart, it could mean we are also at the mercy of that bot.
Do you think it will happen? I'm curious to hear your viewpoint on all of this. It's not a matter of whether the bots will become more common than a house pet and could be potentially abused or even create pandemonium in some way.