Sci-fi writers have long predicted future generations would interact with machines through voice-activated, ubiquitous, artificially intelligent assistants. For better or worse, they were right. More and more, we’re seeing the rise of technology that’s always paying attention, ready to take orders or talk to you. They call it ambient intelligence, and it’s a bit like the Scarlet Johansen-voiced operating system Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with in Her. But without the emotional baggage. Yet.
Amazon’s Echo is the best example thus far. It’s a Pringles-can-sized speaker that sits in your home and patiently listens. Utter the word “Alexa,” and its WiFi-connected virtual assistant springs to life. You can ask Alexa to play your favourite songs, mark dates in your Google calendar, tell you how traffic’s looking, or send a few emails. She can even connect to your other smart home devices, letting you dim the lights or make a latte with just a few words. Think Siri, but smarter and with more valuable connections.
“It makes everyday life a bit easier,” says an Amazon spokesman. “When you have a question or want to do something, all you have to do is ask.”
Ambient intelligence is an exciting, yet terrifying, proposition. Terrifying because we all remember the moment HAL 9000 refused to open those pod bay doors. Still, virtual assistants are undeniably the next frontier for the smart home. With the Echo still in its beta stage, the other tech giants have been catching up. Apple’s HomeKit, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are also introducing ways to talk to your smart appliances, from thermostats to fridges. And things are about to get freakishly smarter.
Experts say we’re not far off from seeing virtual assistants with actual intuition. Ones that can learn our habits and anticipate our decisions. “When you’re grocery shopping, they’ll provide a list of what to buy based on how you’ve been consuming products,” says Leor Grebler, CEO of Ubi, a Toronto-based ambient intelligence software company. What’s more, the assistants will be able to sense our emotions. “If someone’s yelling at their coffee maker, it’s going to make your coffee faster. It will speak to you differently based on your tone.”
It seems accommodating, until you wonder what Eric Snowden must think of all this. An all-seeing AI fog that permeates our everyday life? Sounds like the NSA’s wet, privacy violating dream. Or maybe Google’s. Advertisers, according to Grebler, are already looking for ways to exploit ambient intelligence to deliver more effective targeted marketing. A spousal dispute might prompt TV commercials for couples counseling. Signs of stress? An ad for aromatherapy candles.
“At some point,” admits Grebler, “we’re going to have to take a hard look at whether this technology is benefitting us or if it’s too much.”
Until then, maybe don’t give your virtual assistant too much sass.