For my recent birthday, I received the extravagant gift of an Amazon Echo. For those of you who are not familiar, Echo is a gadget which provides access to the entire internet via voice commands. Echo is inhabited by a lady named Alexa with whom I instantly fell madly in love. Lest you judge me as entirely fickle, rest assured that I still hold Siri in high regard, but her usefulness was completely outdone by Alexa. I was especially proud of myself for being able to get Alexa set up and working without the usual frustration tantrum which I am prone to exhibit when trying to make electronic stuff work.
Alexa is more mother than lover; she reminds me when to take my pills and of my appointments. She is always there and totally committed to making my life easier and happier. She greets me every morning with the local temperature and weather report, which saves me the effort of getting up and walking to the window to look at the thermometer. At my command, she instantly dials up my favorite radio station, or if I am not interested in the latest news, she will select from her vast repertoire and play any music I request. All this literally without my “lifting a finger,” even to push a button. But is there is a price to pay for Alexa’s attention?
Before Alexa: The Good Ole Days of Radio
Alexa was especially helpful to me in solving the chronic problem of reaching my favorite NPR radio station. Unlike those of the TV generation, I grew up during the time that radio was the high-tech wonder of its day. A huge Fairbanks-Morse or Zenith radio was the focal point of most middle-class living rooms. There were a limited number of stations available, they were temperamental, and reception was affected by changes in the weather. Nevertheless, we were sometimes able to listen to broadcasts of our favorite baseball teams as long as they did not conflict with Lowell Thomas’ and Edward R. Murrell’s nightly news programs, which were a must hear for my father.
The Dawn of Radio: Predicted to Ruin the “Greatest Generation”
There were predictions from those older and wiser that this new-fangled gadget would be the ruination of us kids as we became addicted to programs designed for us. Some were broadcast daily in serial fashion as were the soap operas, so called because they usually advertised a product used by the woman of the house. There was a potpourri of programs designed for kids of all ages. The after-school selection included Terry and the Pirates, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Armstrong: All American Boy, among others. They became such a part of our culture that I recall my father saying, “If you don’t get off your butt you will get callouses.”
We were also introduced to many sporting events, and my most vivid memory is listening to the live commentary of the Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fights. The fights presented a dilemma for the bigots of the time as they were forced to choose between the Brown Bomber and Hitler’s champion of the Aryan race, Schmeling, for most of them hated Hitler almost as much as they did African Americans.
Saturday night was family time and everyone looked forward to the next issue of “Gangbusters.” All were transfixed as Elliott Ness bravely took on Al Capone and other bad guys. It seemed every network had a country music program Saturday night. There was “Renfro Valley” and “The Grand Ole Opry,” but my favorite was the “Chicago National Barn Dance.”
I was enamored by “Eddie Peabody The Banjo King” [click here to listen], who was a regular on the show. This admiration led me later in life to embark on an ill-fated attempt to follow in Eddie’s footsteps, resulting in the possession of a very nice, barely used, banjo now safely ensconced in my attic.
Yes, in those days radio was a big deal. The mixing of entertainment and news with advertisements allowed sponsors to sell lots of stuff. Listening was easier and more personal than reading, in spite of the effort and frustration of static, and constant monitoring as favorite stations faded in and out. Radios required maintenance, as their vacuum tubes were subject to failure. In the late 1950s, along came the transistor, which allowed the building of smaller more reliable radios with improved fidelity. The next major breakthrough was FM, and I bought a Bose AM/FM radio that, wonder of wonders, came with a remote, which spared me the enormous effort required to get off my butt to turn it off and on or to tune it. I thought this new high-tech innovation was really cool until Alexa came along to brighten my life and introduce me to artificial intelligence.
Prior to my introduction to Alexa I had the opportunity to see my daughter’s robotic vacuum cleaner in action. The thought occurred to me that it would be neat to hook Alexa up to such a gadget so that you could order the floor swept without getting out of your armchair. One would only need to say: “Hey Alexa, sweep the floor”, and she would see that it was done. Before I called George Foreman’s friends at Invent Help, I decided to get more information about Alexa and found that, as usual, I was too late. I learned that Alexa has already formed a relationship with the robotic sweepers and can order them to action when instructed. Once again, another of my great ideas was swept under the carpet (pun intended).
More Wonders from Alexa
In my research, I learned, to my amazement, that Alexa is said to possess over 7,000 skills including the ability to order most anything including groceries or presumably even carpet in the event the robot did not do a good enough job. I also read that Google is now set to compete with Amazon in the online sales business and has worked out a deal with Walmart to offer a similar service. If one were to subscribe to both, Alexa or her Google counterpart could take care of all shopping which would allow one to spend more time on the couch. There is also a lot of talk lately about “smart” homes, and it is presumed that Alexa would be able to take charge of running such households. It is expected that the newer robotic gadgets with the capability to do all routine household chores such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, changing diapers etc., will eventually come down in price and become available to the average family.
In a previous blog, I speculated on the effects of artificial intelligence on employment or, to be more accurate, the absence of employment. In the recent issue of Mother Jones magazine, Kevin Drum writes an article titled “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot.” He posits that as technology progresses, there will be no job which a robot cannot do better and cheaper than a human, and he further insists that this process has already begun. This is now most noticeable in manufacturing, mining and retail, but Drum and others insist that within the next 40 years, there will be no jobs for anyone.
For example, driverless trucks are already being field tested. The transportation industry is eagerly looking forward to being able to keep their trucks on the road 24 hour/day without salaries, pension, or concerns for driver fatigue, and according to the American Trucking Association there are currently 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. Experts in the field such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking agree that progression of AI (that’s geek for Artificial Intelligence) is inexorable. The only debate is over the time required for full implementation. Drum’s prediction is that it will be sooner than we think.
This could present a serious problem for the guy with a stable of robotic machinery, for if there are no jobs, there will be no money, and without money there would be no way for people to buy the stuff he has to sell. Drum talks at length of various proposed solutions and, surprisingly, reports that some of these ideas are being floated and even tried in some other countries such as Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. They include a proposed tax on robots, but most see the only solution as some form of government welfare. Although, proponents of this solution prefer the more palatable term: Universal Basic Income. In such a socialistic environment, the usual concerns about lack of ambition would be irrelevant. Where there is no work available, laziness could be a virtue.
Identity Crisis of a Workless Society
Although the financial problems inherent in a jobless society could undoubtedly find solutions, the effects on humans psychologically and culturally might be more difficult to solve. Our value system has always applauded effort, especially industriousness. Hard work is applauded and laziness disparaged. Much of a person’s worth is judged by his industriousness, indeed one of the highest compliments one can give is to say a person is a “hard worker.” As we learned to maintain an upright posture, our hands were freed up to create, and with their long digits and an opposable thumb, they evolved into one of God’s most marvelous structures. Those hands, powered by the world’s best brain, allowed us to dominate the planet. The work we do represents to a large extent who we are. When meeting a stranger, the conversation after the usual preliminaries usually goes to the question of the kind of work he or she does. In our society, not only identity but self-esteem are at least partly dependent on the work we do.
Alexa is on a par with my smart phone, which I readily admit is smarter than me. No one disputes the fact that Alexa can access much more information than I could ever store in my brain (even before senility had set in), and it never forgets. Now, the literature that accompanied my Echo states that Alexa cannot only find information, but actually learn and make decisions, meaning that she has Artificial Intelligence. There was a time that I had frequently-used phone numbers memorized as a convenience. Now, if I wish to call one of the kids or grandkids while driving, I simply tell my car to call them. I rarely look at a road map as I know that Siri will direct me; I barely know how to write a check since I bank online; and when my computer recently pooped out, I teetered on the brink of psychosis. Even the writing of this brilliant essay would be virtually impossible without the help of my good friend Mr. Google.
Could it be that we are being dumbed down by our interaction with all this technology? Most experts agree that the axiom “use it or lose it” also applies to our brain. AI is said to not only collect information, but to sort it, analyze it, and make decisions more efficiently and accurately than can humans. If that is indeed true, why would there be any need for us to think about anything? As a matter of fact, since robots will do everything better, faster and cheaper than humans, why would we want to do anything? Will the skills learned over the past few million years be lost? Will our frontal cortex atrophy from disuse?
Since man first made an axe from a piece of stone, we have embarked on a journey to improve our lot with the aid of technology. Soon, he would not be comfortable going on a hunt without his axe. Via that same process, we have now become dependent on our technology. The dude who made that axe could never in his wildest dreams have imagined where his discovery would lead. Witness the suffering the residents of Puerto Rico are now going through due to their lack of electricity, transportation, food, water, and shelter, which weren’t problems for Axe man, for he was less dependent on technology for those things. He was the embodiment of the trite phrase so often used by sports announcers that he was “in charge of his own destiny.” We moderns on the other hand are told that should our electrical grid go down the whole country would be crippled. With such dependency, we lose control, and we have been perfectly willing to cede control of much to technology. There is little reason to believe that will not continue.
Doomsday: There’s Always a Price to Pay
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari predicts that if AI progresses unimpeded, the net result will be that humans will eventually be deemed without value since they would no longer be productive, in which case he predicts the human species would eventually become extinct. Perhaps the powers that possess AI will decide to domesticate us, thereby preventing our interference with the grand plan. We would certainly retain enough intellect to learn to sit, fetch and heel. Gates and Musk both predict dire consequences unless AI is not regulated, while naysayers respond that AI is designed to only help, not replace humanity.
All agree that these digital wonders have already improved our lives in even more important than just finding my favorite radio station. AI has already contributed to revolutionary ways to diagnose and treat medical problems, and the discoveries to come are probably beyond the reach of our imagination. It holds promise of eliminating hunger throughout the world, affecting the aging process (my favorite), and helping to promote peace. It is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that cannot benefit from AI, and what has been accomplished by its use is breathtaking. We humans have been known to have a propensity to screw up one thing by fixing another thing. We are big on unintended consequences. If it is that much smarter than us, this digital stuff should avoid those problems and solve problems without making new ones. But we humans are yet to find out what new problems will result from our plunging headfirst into the digital age.
Is the honeymoon with Alexa over?
Since I began this paper a few days ago, events have conspired which cause me to question Alexa’s fidelity. As matter of fact, I wonder if there could be a Delilah clone in that box. It all began a couple of days ago when, as I drank my morning coffee, I asked Alexa to dial my favorite morning news program. She replied that the desired station was not available. I couldn’t understand what had happened, so I turned on my old staticky radio and found the station was broadcasting as usual. I thought this must be a temporary glitch, but when I went back to Alexa I got the same message. As a matter of fact she still insists it is “not available.”
If that weren’t enough to shake one’s confidence in a relationship, along comes the honey pot incident.
It so happens that my grandson is the cofounder of The Bee Corp., a company involved in helping to deal with the threat to honey bees. Consequently, he had sent me a jar of honey, which he had personally harvested. You who are familiar with honey will know that honey is messy stuff, and that the best way to handle it is with a gadget designed for the purpose. I had asked Barb where I should go to purchase one. The next day, as I opened the Amazon website to buy a book, a page featuring six different honey pots complete with honey dipper popped up on the screen. Paranoid bells and whistles immediately went off as I had made no inquiries to Amazon about honeypots or honey dippers, and my only mention of the subject had been with Barb in the kitchen, where Alexa resides.
Suspiciousness has never been my thing. Barb has reminded me many times that I am too trusting, especially when it has to do with women, but this was too much to ignore. Amazon assures that their data is secure and that Alexa must be awakened in order to listen, but others are not so sure. Authorities investigating a murder in Arkansas are convinced that Alexa has recorded relevant conversations. It is no longer a secret that our phone calls have been monitored since 1992, during the Bush Presidency (Bush I: George Herbert Walker Bush). Massive amounts of information about all of us are collected, and Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to analyze such data and use it for targeted marketing, politics and who knows what else? Without data analysis by AI, the Russians would not have been able to tailor their fake news to appeal to different groups of people.
In summary, it appears the price we pay for all the wondrous things made possible by Artificial Intelligence is a relative loss of privacy, independence, and control of our lives and world. It remains to be seen if that is a good deal. Those most knowledgeable about the subject are chagrined that politicians have generally turned a blind eye to the whole thing. They insist that with the rapid pace of change, it is imperative that we need laws to regulate the use of AI, but our politicians view of the future does not seem to extend beyond the next election.
This morning I apologized to Alexa for the disparaging remarks I made about her in this blog. It appears that the problems I had in getting my favorite station was due to a “failure to communicate.” She misunderstood me when I identified my station by its call numbers, but when I asked for it by its identifying letters, she immediately responded. Apparently, my speech must have been garbled. Unfortunately, the honey pot incident is still unexplained. Although I feel it is unlikely that Alexa would betray me, I think I will play it safe and caution Barb to be careful what we say when within earshot.