When I was young, my parents gave me cassette tapes of old-time radio broadcasts to listen to. One of my favorites was a 1948 episode of Quiet Please. In “The Pathetic Fallacy,” an engineer named Quinn brags (in glorious ’40s tech-speak) to a pair of journalists about the giant computing machine that his organization has constructed:
The actual machine is behind those walls. Three rooms full of tubes and motors and stroboscopes and several thousand miles of wiring and some devices that are not public property yet. The machine took six years to build, and a total of eighty-one expert…
When my partner asked for an Alexa device for Christmas, I refused to buy him one. I explained that while I ordinarily would welcome suggestions of what to get him, this year I would be ignoring his less-than-subtle hints about smart speakers, and he should brace himself for something else on his wishlist instead.
Having discussed the treasure trove that is our personal data when we watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack together last year, I was surprised that he would even consider welcoming into our shared home yet another way for technology companies to monetize our personal information.
Vincent Paguia’s new house caused quite a spectacle when it arrived in his neighborhood in the beach town of Half Moon Bay, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. It took just three hours and some very heavy machinery to crane all the ready-made modules of his home into place, lifting them off the back of two semis that pulled up in front of his lot. The new 1,300-square-foot family home had been built in sections in the factory and arrived complete with faucets, kitchen appliances, wood floors and shower heads. …
It’s that time of year again. Not all of us will festoon the house with garlands, light candles, or stick a tree in our living rooms. But many of us will ask, “Should I buy myself or anyone else an Amazon Echo device for the holidays?”
It wasn’t always like this, my friends.
On November 6, 2014, Amazon announced the original Amazon Echo, an always-on speaker that responds to the wake-word “Alexa.” But I didn’t learn about the device until a few months later, a few days into my 2015 New Year’s resolution to stop shopping at Amazon.
Amazon knows that Alexa doesn’t get everything right, so the virtual personal assistant is picking up a new trick later this year: Guessing when you’re frustrated.
The feature represents a fundamental shift in how Alexa understands the people talking to it. A conversation with Rohit Prasad, vice president and chief scientist for Alexa, reveals that the virtual assistant now analyzes not just what you’re saying, but your tone of voice when telling Alexa it got a command wrong. Rather than trying to understand what you said, Alexa also analyzes how you say it.
Star Trek vs. George Orwell’s 1984. No two cultural touchstones better illustrate our diametrically opposed feelings about voice systems.
Star Trek’s always listening, ever-helpful Computer represents the highest ideal of a digital assistant, while Orwell’s Telescreen, with its “Big Brother is watching” messages, was emblematic of our darkest fears. With each passing year and digital assistant breakthrough, we vacillate wildly between these two perspectives.
Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon was employing thousands of humans to comb through utterances and transcribe what we say to Amazon’s Echo-based voice assistant. …
The undercurrents of the future. A publication from Medium about technology and people.