More than forty (yikes!) years ago, I wrote a presentation about the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology. The technology of the time was the pocket calculator, and my concern was focused on the tendency of garbage in to become garbage out.
I was writing for high-school students and my point was that we need to know the basics in order to catch our keyboarding errors. Type 5 times 7 into the calculator and your answer should be 35. (Really, I checked this.) But enter the information incorrectly and you might get 28 or 40 or some other error that you wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t spend so many hours memorizing multiplication tables.
It was a brilliant argument and, of course, every student who heard it threw away their calculators and bought a gross of #2 pencils. JK. Instead, they all assumed they would be company presidents and their minions would do all the heavy lifting, and addition.
Fast forward four decades and I find I must sound the alarm again, this time in response to a more insidious danger of technology that comes in the form of masters who look like servants. Yes, I’m talking about you, Siri, and your co-conspirator, Alexa, and whatever Google calls its viper at your breast.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone is going nuts about Siri taking notes when your kids sing that baby shark song, but that's just a head fake. Our internet gods will announce the end of eavesdropping and we'll lower our guard once again. That's when they'll pounce or, more accurately, devour our paychecks from ambush.
That's because you might have paid to have Siri live with you, but Siri doesn’t work for you. Siri works for the companies who buy advertising and positioning opportunities from Apple. Alexa serves the highest-margin clients of Amazon. They reply to your commands, but their hearts belong to someone else.
In-home assistants are the avant garde of the robot revolution, the takeover of our lives by artificial intelligences that smile and smile while being villains. These devices are undermining the consumer’s advantage online, and eliminating the race to the bottom that is the design flaw—and consumer edge—of the internet.
Search engines enable us to find exactly what we want at the lowest total cost. We can see which offers are promotions paid for by advertisers and we can check the reviews of the low-cost offers to find out if anyone actually received the products they bought. We can take the offer that’s highest on the page, knowing somebody paid Google for the placement, or we can take a few minutes to refine our search and determine the best overall value for ourselves.
Delegate those decisions to Alexa and you might as well declare that money is no object. There is no simple way to ensure that she or Siri or the Google thing will get the best deal for us. We own the device, but we are absolutely not the customer.
When we buy a house, we don’t confide our maximum offer to the real estate agent because the agent works for the seller. We engage the agent, but the seller pays her, so her duty is to them, not us. We apply similar skepticism with insurance agents, stock brokers, lawyers and doctors, because we know they get paid more for certain advice and less for other recommendations.
We’re inclined to lower our guard, though, when the same servant that’s making our buying decisions is also playing our songs and ordering our pizza. She sounds so friendly and servile and efficient. How could you not trust her to get you a deal on humidifier filters?
The more we rely on counter-top assistants to handle our day-to-day activities, the more we’re likely to pay for everything we buy. Trust me on this. I was right on target with my prediction 40 years ago and I am overdue to be right again.
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.