Column At the annual spectacular of crap that we optimistically term the Consumer Electronics Show, I found myself locked into a room with Alexa.
And yes, disembodied AI servant though she may be, she still filled every corner of a rather spacious room with all of the various products now connected to and enabled by Alexa - everything from alarm clocks to refrigerators to automobiles to - kitchen taps?
Yes. Kohler Konnect (klever) ties a connected kitchen water tap into Alexa, because... “Alexa, pour me 500ml of water.” That’s why. It’s less about activation than precise control - something easy for a smart faucet and much harder for a human. The Kohler Konnect is a kitchen robot of sorts, very good at doing exactly one thing - pouring out precisely the amount of water you need.
Is that enough to justify Alexifying a kitchen? Most of us dream of a world where kitchen appliances do most of the work. Sales of everything from dishwashers to mixer-cum-cookers prove that we will spend big to fob off some of the burden to our machines. But it’s one thing to spread the load and another entirely to uplift the entire kitchen with Amazon’s distributed and increasingly powerful AI.
It’s not that AI is anything to be afraid of in itself. Despite that very funny Simpsons episode featuring a murderous household AI assistant voiced by Pierce Brosnan, prospects remain extremely low that an electric mixer will rise into sentience and go on the attack. The real concern has to be focused on a single channel of AI within the connected kitchen - and what that means for what our homes have already become.
A friend with many years in technology recently described his dark vision of this new world, where Alexa - or its equivalents in Google Assistant and Siri - have become the universal interface within the home, and not just to the home, but to everything outside the home.
“How do you have a business,” he asked, “that lies outside those ecosystems? How would anyone hear about it? How would anyone know to buy from you?”
In that Alexified room at CES I took the full measure of that world, where nothing non-Bezos got a look in. Planet Amazon, coming to me through a sweetly mellifluous voice.
My friend hasn’t been the only one to express concern about this near future. Both the OpenAI initiative (sponsored in part by Elon Musk) and Mozilla’s Common Voice project seek to make these potent technologies widely available to any developer of any tool anywhere, and in a way that would not shackle them to one of the trillion-dollar titans of tech.
This should be an open source effort of similar importance to Linux - and for similar reasons: Microsoft once dominated personal computing (and continues to do so in the enterprise space), and would have strangled all successor technologies - as it managed to do to the web with ActiveX for almost a full decade. Only Linux - via the Android smartphone, say - would check that power.
If history can serve as guide, the ecosystem that supplants and succeeds Alexa won’t be exactly like Alexa - any more than a smartphone looks or acts like a PC. And if open, that ecosystem can lead to a new flowering of tech companies, rather than reinforcing a rusted-on oligopoly of trillionaires.
We’re driving headlong into a future where we have one voice interface to rule us all. One interface to one company - and where that leads cannot be good.
Even in the most benevolent of dictatorships, single points of failure mean these networked intelligences - even when delivered with the best of intentions and great great interfaces - can come tumbling down. You reckon Alexa could pour me a cup of schadenfreude? ®