We’re but a few weeks into the new year and it’s already apparent that Amazon’s ambitious goal for 2019 is to literally inhabit our lives by implementing its vocal assistant Alexa in an increasing number of home devices and wearables. From January 8 to January 11, CES 2019 (one of the world’s biggest tech fairs for consumer technologies) took place in Las Vegas. Alongside the showcasing of some of the most cutting-edge technologies that are about to hit the market, what caught the attention of the press was Alexa’s ubiquitous presence within a considerable amount of products; even within the most unexpected.
Forget about Alexa’s usual spherical aesthetics, Amazon has now launched the Alexa Connect Kit, which is a single chip that enables the AI assistant to be easily integrated within different devices, opening up a whole new spectrum of possible integrations that were otherwise unthinkable. ShadeCraft, for instance, is a new tool that users voice assistance to control garden parasols (yes I know, not the cutting-edge technology you had in mind), and in order for you to lounge in the sun or shade without moving even a finger, Alexa was apparently the best solution.
But what is leading the way of Alexa’s integration with wearable technology—and with that officially becoming an extension of our body—are products like Focals. “Focals come with Alexa built-in. Ask Alexa to play music, hear the news, see the weather, control your smart home and more.” Reads North’s website, the brand behind the custom-built glasses with an invisible display on the lenses (now this is a cutting-edge invention), which is constantly connected with all your apps, subscription accounts, social media and of course, with Alexa integrated in its system in order to make all of these communications smoother.
The popular voice helper was not alone at CES however. Alexa was indeed often debuting the same products with its arch-nemesis the Google Assistant. Curiously enough, Google also just launched the Google Assistant Connect, which is basically the same chip-based tool proposed by Amazon for easy and seamless integration across IoT.
But despite the fact that the Google Assistant has an arguably more accurate search engine (no one competes with Google when it comes to search), as outlined by BBC Technology Desk writers Chris Baraniuk and Leo Kelion, Alexa is still leading the game. According to the Verge, Bezos’ goldmine is estimated to contain almost half of the global smart speaker market with 41 percent of the share, while Google dominates a mere 28 percent in comparison.
Voice helpers are set to become the next organic step in how we humans will communicate via and with machines, and Amazon—with Google just behind it—is making sure its assistant will lead this next step. While previously both internet tycoons were collecting data that we were freely publishing on the internet, with their new integrations, Amazon and Google are now accessing information that belongs to our day-to-day lives offline; information that is otherwise not published online, and that’s a big lump of new personal data for these companies to capitalise on.
As the connected IoT trend grows bigger—penetrating into an increasing (and at times absurd) range of objects, furniture, and accessories inside our most private places—it is crucial that we, the consumers, are aware that with supposed ease and connectivity comes the next step of the invasion of our privacy and the monetisation of our data by some of the world’s biggest private conglomerates.
According to Amazon, we suck at handling our emotions—so they’re offering to do it for us. The company that gave us Echo and everyone’s favourite voice to come home to, Alexa, has announced it is working on a voice-activated wearable device that can detect our emotions. Based on the user’s voice, the device (unfortunately not a mood ring but you can read more about these here) can discern the emotional state the user is in and theoretically instruct the person on how to effectively respond to their feelings and also how to respond to others. As Amazon knows our shopping habits, as well as our personal and financial information, it now wants our soul too. Welcome to the new era of mood-based marketing and possibly the end of humanity as we know it.
Emotional AI and voice recognition technology has been on the rise and according to Annette Zimmermann, “By 2022, your personal device will know more about your emotional state than your own family.” Unlike marketing of the past where they captured your location, what you bought, or what you like, it’s not about what we say anymore but how we say it. The intonations of our voices, the speed we talk at, what words we emphasise and even the pauses in between those words.
Voice analysis and emotional AI are the future and Amazon plans to be a leader in wearable AI. Using the same software in Alexa, this emotion detector will use microphones and voice activation to recognise and analyse a user’s voice to identify emotions through vocal pattern analysis. Through these vocal biomarkers, it can identify base emotions such as anger, fear, and joy, to nuanced feelings like boredom, frustration, disgust, and sorrow. The secretive Lab 126, the hardware development group behind Amazon’s Fire phone, Echo speaker and Alexa, is creating this emotion detector (code name Dylan). Although it’s still in early development, Amazon has already filed a patent on it since October 2018.
This technology has been around since 2009. Companies such as CompanionMx, a clinical app that uses voice analysis to document emotional progress and suggest ways of improvement for a patient, VoiceSense who analyses customer’s investment style and employee hiring and turnover, and Affectiva, born out of the MIT media lab, that produces emotional AI for marketing firms, healthcare, gaming, automotive, and almost every other facet of modern life you can think of.
So why is Amazon getting into it now? With Amazon’s data goldmine combined with emotional AI, it has a bigger payout than Apple or Fitbit. Combining a user’s mood with their browsing and purchasing history will improve on what they recommend you, refine their target demographics, and improve how they sell you stuff.
From a business standpoint, this is quite practical. When it comes down to it, we’ll still need products. One example being health products. You won’t care so much about the bleak implications of target marketing when you’re recommended the perfect flu meds when you’re sick. Mood-based marketing makes sense as mood and emotions can affect our decision making. For instance, if you were going through a breakup you’re more apt to buy an Adele album than if you were in a relationship. But this is deeper than knowing what type of shampoo we like or the genre of movie we prefer watching. This is violating and takes control away from our purchasing power. They’re digging into how we feel—our essence and if you believe in it, into our souls.
One must ask who is coding this emotion detector? Whose emotional bias is influencing and identifying what is an appropriate emotional response? Kate Crawford from the AI Now Institute voiced her concerns in her 2018 speech at the Royal Society, emphasising how the person behind the tech is the most important person as they will be affecting how millions of people behave, as well as future generations.
For instance, if a Caucasian man was coding this tech, could they accurately identify the emotional state of a black female wearing this device? How do you detect the feeling after experiencing microaggressions if the person coding the tech has never experienced that? What about emotions that can’t be translated from language to language? Other concerns are that we won’t be able to trust ourselves on how we feel. For instance, if we ask where’s the closest ice cream shop and it asks if we’re sad, will we become sad? Can it brainwash us to feel how it wants us to feel? After decades of using GPS, we don’t know how to navigate ourselves without it. Will this dependency sever our ability to feel and how to react emotionally—in other words being human?
Taking all this information in, I’m still weirdly not mad at the idea of a mood detector. This has potential as an aid. People with social conditions such as PTSD, Autism, or Asperger’s disease can benefit, as this would aid in interaction with others or for loved ones to better understand those who are afflicted. So should we allow non-sentient machines who’ve never experienced frustration, disappointment, or heartache to tell us how to feel? Part of me says hell no, but a part of me wouldn’t mind help with handling my emotions. If we are aware of all the positive and negative implications, we can better interact with this technology and use it responsibly. If we see this as an aid and not as a guide, this could have great potential to communicate better with others and ourselves objectively. Or it can obliterate what is left of our humanity. Sorry, that was a bit heavy-handed, but can’t help it, I’m human.