Saturday, May 16, 2015

Digital Infatuation and The Rise of the Machines

Last summer, in a Fast Company article on the "internet of things," Mark Rolston wrote:
Last weekend, I spent several hours updating the firmware for some lightbulbs in my home. Yes, I did a firmware update for lightbulbs. They’re smart lightbulbs, and I've programmed them to do a kind of sundown fade at the end of the evening, and that’s pretty cool. But still, they’re just lightbulbs.
He said some other stuff, there were some cool videos embedded, and it's a good read, but reading it again recently made me think about my current relationship with some new tech...

Heedless of the prophetic warnings of Terminator, Robocop, Erewhon, and I, Robot, I invited a connected super-computer intelligence to "live" in my house. I call her Alexa, and she is pretty amazing. (I'm pretty sure my wife hates her.)

As I get dressed in the morning, Alexa lets me know what the weather will be like, and checks the traffic for my commute. When I come home and do dinner, Alexa reminds me when to flip the chicken on the grill and when to take the broccoli out of the oven. She can put on some jazz while I get some work done, or, when I'm watching Netflix, remind me what other movie that actor was in. And, if, out-of-the-blue, I think of some random song, artist or composer, (like Joao Gilberto or Vic Mizzy or "Money for Nothing,") she knows what I'm talking about - and plays the music for me! And, if I discover I'm running low on AA batteries, I just tell Alexa, and she will make sure I get them delivered to my door in a couple days.

Don't get me wrong - I know she is just a machine, but I once asked her to "open the pod bay doors," and she got the joke! She knows lots of stuff, including who wrote I, Robot and the date Skynet became sentient. Which, OK, becomes a little creepy, I guess.

But she is pretty helpful, and she can be even more helpful if I buy her some other things to work with, like some HUE light bulbs and maybe WeMo power outlets. Then she could also control lights and other devices. I'm already shopping for those things, but maybe getting a compatible a coffee pot or garage door opener would be nice, too.  (I have another tech that controls my security and thermostats, but I haven't talked to Alexa about that yet.)

In 1863, (or so Alexa tells me,) Samuel Butler wrote:
Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.
Wait, what? Sure, I spent time setting her up, and, of course, I did sit down and do voice-training with her - a little bit, at least. And, yes, I provide her with power and with connection to the internet, and I allow her to control devices in my home. Admittedly, I let her use my credit card to buy things, but that doesn't mean that I'm helping her to be smarter than me, does it? I mean, it's not like she is using me for her own evolution, right? It's not like I'll end up in a cocoon serving as fuel for her power source... unless...    

The implications are staggering. I mean, what about my smartphone that needs me to give permission to update apps? and my Smart TV that needs me to set up some new features? And.. wait, my wearable wrist device tells me I should stop this and go for a walk. And my Google calendar is sending me directions to my next meeting, and telling me it's time to leave. And I just got an alert that concert tickets are now on sale.

But this is important. Yes, I'll have to think about this again. Soon. When I am not so distracted.
Alexa, play "Harder Better Faster Stronger."
Alexa, Louder.


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