“Hey Siri!” “Alexa, call mom.” “Hey Google, set my alarm for 10:00 am.” Here are three statements, that you, along with the rest of Generation Z have most likely interacted with in one way or another. Investing in a machine that, as advertisements demonstrate, can literally do anything for you, sounds like an amazing idea. I mean, who would not like to have a device to remember your passwords, tell you how much of an ingredient to use in a recipe, set your alarms, give traffic advisories, among several other things? All of that sounds great, does it not? Yet, have you ever stopped to think about where this information is stored? Or how the machines actually know the direction of your commute? Is it just a coincidence that Siri knows the exact time you set your alarm for every morning and reminds you to set it? Or that Alexa knows whose phone number to call when you tell it to call mom? The amount of information a virtual assistant stores within it about its user should be much more concerning to us. Although these machines are created to make our lives easier, they pose a major risk to the privacy of our generation and on generations to come.
Virtual assistants collect large amounts of information about their users. In the Berkeley Technology Law Journal article, “How Digital Assistants can Harm our Economy, Privacy and Democracy,” authors Maurice E. Stucke and Ariel Ezrachi state, “Digital assistants (and the smart technologies connected with them) aim to collect even more personal data [than smartphones]” (Ezrachi and Stucke 1279). This makes it clear that these machines do indeed collect immense amounts of information. You may be wondering, how do these machines actually collect this information if all users do is ask them questions? Well this is an interesting thing to take a look at. As users, we ask virtual assistants different questions ranging from the weather to the amount of time a commute will take, to information on a specific singer, to just asking the machine to play our favorite playlists. These may sound like simple commands, but as each question is asked, the information is stored within the internal servers of the company that owns the machine. In turn, this provides the companies with information on each one of the machine’s users. The same article references a situation from 2017, when the company VIZIO was caught tracking the television shows its users watched, without their consent. This was done in order to cater advertisements towards their consumers. Just as a company like VIZIO could do this, so could virtual assistants. The only difference is that virtual assistants collect a greater amount of data, due to the fact that a larger amount of people interact with the machines, including children, guests, or anyone else that comes to a home that owns one. (Ezrachi and Stucke 1283). Machines can gain access to a user’s location, as well as his/her likes and dislikes from interpretations of commands that are given.
In addition to the issue of large corporations knowing too much about us, according to the Berkley Law Journal article, government surveillance should be another concern. After providing an example of how a government agent can hack into smartphones, the authors go on to say “Governments would have similar… abilities to hack digital assistants to monitor and gather evidence” (Ezrachi and Stucke 1282). As a result of this, it is evident that the information that is shared with virtual assistants can be used for a lot more than just answering a question, or conducting an inconvenient task.
Users of virtual assistants often confide in their machines, as if they were a partner or significant other (Woods). Due to the fact that they feel such an intimate relationship with them, they tend to share the same amount, or more information with it than they would with a close friend or relative. As a result, the machines get to know the user inside and out. This then leads to the machine storing detailed and personal information about the user. In an interview with Forbes.com, an Amazon Echo employee said that the reason the company collects data on its users is to “improve the customer’s experience” (O’Flaherty). During the same interview, the spokesperson also said that the Echo Dot does record its users, and that these recordings are listened to by select Amazon Echo employees. They claim that this is done to “train [the machine’s] speech recognition and natural language understanding systems” (O’Flaherty). Although this is certain, and the employees can not identify the people they are listening to, as O’Flaherty states, “Amazon never explicitly tells users that a human could be listening to [them].”
Owning and using a virtual assistant is something that is becoming increasingly popular. According to Pew Research Center, as of 2017, 46% of American adults frequently used a virtual assistant ( “46% of Americans Use Digital Voice Assistants” ). As a result, issues of privacy and the way in which these machines store and interpret our data should be concerning a greater amount of people. Furthermore, virtual assistants are not only used by adults, but they have also become intriguing to children. Since these machines speak to you as if they were your friend, children easily become entertained by asking them silly questions and waiting to hear the response that has been curated by the company that created the device.
In an experiment conducted by Stefania Druga, Cynthia Breazeal, Randi Williams and Mitchel Resnick, published by the MIT Personal Robots Group, the researchers looked at a group of twenty six children ranging in ages from three to ten. These children were divided into groups and told to talk to four different devices: an Amazon Echo, a Google Home, a Cozmo and Julie Chatbot. From these conversations, the researchers learned that 60% of the younger children (ages three or four) thought they were smarter than the Amazon Echo, while 100% of the older children (ages six through ten) thought the Amazon Echo was smarter than them (Breazeal et al.). This is a notion that can be taken into consideration when looking at the ways in which these machines can affect upcoming generations. Although younger children still believe they are smarter than the device, the older children are more aware of the fact that these machines know more than they do. Since the older children are more capable of interacting with the machines, as they are more developed than the younger children, they can take advantage of the knowledge they have noticed from these machines and, from a young age, start having the virtual assistant conduct simple tasks for them. This creates a culture of dependency on the machine to answer questions for homework, for managing different home appliances, and for looking up information. From their research, the authors also found that a majority of the participants thought that the virtual assistants were friendly and trustworthy (Breazeal et al.). This demonstrates that children are very likely to confide in these machines as if they are their friends. As a result, it is probable that they share extensive amounts of information with them, which can in turn lead the large corporations that own the assistants to hold onto great amounts of information about young children and those they associate themselves with.
As virtual assistants continue developing into the future, they can very much look a lot like Samantha in the movie Her directed by Spike Jonze. This film was released in 2013. Two years prior to this, in 2011, Apple came out with their personal digital assistant, Siri. This was the beginning of a revolution. At its start, Siri had limited functions compared to its abilities today. At the time of its release, the movie Her, was seen as something unimaginable. Who would spend the day speaking to some virtual voice that does not exist? Who would actually depend on this machine to fulfill all of his or her needs? And an even larger question, who would fall in love with a figure that is not even real? Although all of these things seemed like an exaggeration in 2013, six years later, a lot of these situations could actually happen in real life. The extent of the tasks virtual assistants can complete today make them seem like they are a real person. Adding on to this, with the creation of Apple’s AirPods, people can walk around requesting for Siri to conduct any task for them by just saying her name.
At the rate technology is developing, we are at the brim of becoming a society dependent on our virtual assistants to please us, just as the world in Her was. David Burden and Maggi Savin- Baden look at this in depth as they discuss the future of virtual assistants in their book, Virtual Humans Today and Tomorrow. Throughout their text they look into how these machines could potentially affect our future world. The authors reference these digital assistants by pointing out that “Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Home and other variations of the ‘intelligent speaker’ or ‘smart house assistant’ have begun their invasion of our homes,” and by mentioning “As Siri and Cortana on mobile phones continue to develop, those living within a developed country will be constantly in reach of a virtual human performing the role of a personal assistant” (Burden and Savin-Baden 250). Here they make it clear that both the in-home and mobile assistants are beginning to define the world around us, and that these machines are going to continue developing and making an even greater impact on our lives. They discuss the possibility of uploading a brain to a computer and replicating the human mind in the form of a device, making these machines much more capable than they are now. If this were to happen, digital assistants could also likely become part of the economic and social capital of our world. In addition, the authors predict that between 2050 and 2100, there will be one virtual assistant for every five real humans (Burden and Savin-Baden 251). Noting the points stated above makes it evident that the potential intense development of virtual assistants throughout the next century, can change the way our society works entirely.
It is important to acknowledge this rapid evolution of technology today. The way innovations change from one year to another is astonishing. Looking at digital voice assistants, this technological development becomes notable. As mentioned previously, the digital voice assistant began as a program on a mobile device that was able to conduct a limited amount of tasks, those of which mostly pertained to the cell phone (reading text messages, making phone calls, conducting emails…). Yet as technology has continued to develop during the past two years, leading companies have diverted from the original mobile phone digital assistant to create separate digital assistant products. Digital assistants such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, have the ability to answer more commands than the mobile device assistant. Due to the convenience these machines bring to us as twenty first century technology users, and their continuous technological advancement providing them the ability to do more, they have become immensely popular amongst digital technology consumers, and have the potential to take over the society we live in today.
“46% of Americans Use Digital Voice Assistants.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/12/nearly-half-of-americans-use-digital-voice-assistants-mostly-on-their-smartphones/ft_17-12-07_voiceasst_users/
Breazeal, C., Druga, S., Resnick, M. and Williams, R. “‘Hey Google is it OK if I Eat You?’” Initial Explorations in Child-Agent Interaction.” MIT Personal Robot Group. http://robotic.media.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/06/idcwp0180-drugaACR.pdf pdf. June 2017.
Burden, David, and Maggi Savin-Baden. Virtual Humans: Today and Tomorrow. CRCPress, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
Ezrachi, Ariel and Maurice E. Stucke. “How Digital Assistants Can Harm Our Economy, Privacy and Democracy.” vol. 32, iss. 3, 2017. Berkeley Technology Law Journal. https://doi.org/10.15779/Z383B5W79M
O’Flaherty, Kate. “Amazon Staff Are Listening to Alexa Conversations— Here’s What to Do.” Forbes.com, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/04/12/amazon-staff-are-listening-to-alexa-conversations-heres-what-to-do/#42eaa6b71a22. Accessed 16 November 2019.
Woods, Heather Suzanne. “Asking More of Siri and Alexa: Feminine Persona in Service of Surveillance Capitalism.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 35, iss. 4, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/15295036.2018.1488082. Accessed 4 November 2019.