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The Subtle Ways Your Digital Assistant Might Manipulate You

Stashed in: Google!, Amazon, Echo Chambers!, Psychology, Chatbots, Backchannel, Privacy!, Echo

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The more it learns about you, the more it guides you toward your own preferences. 

And yet, despite the promise of digital assistants, they also carry significant social, political, and economic concerns. The leading platforms’ plans, the Guardian reports, are clear: They envision “a future where humans do less thinking when it comes to the small decisions that make up daily life.” To work well, the digital butler will likely operate from an existing platform and tap into the vast personal data and services that platform offers. Four super-platforms—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet—dominate today’s online world. Not surprisingly, each is aiming for its digital assistant (Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Echo, Facebook’s M, and Google’s Assistant and Home) to become our head butler.

Why is each super-platform scrambling to be first? The more we rely on our butler, the more data it collects on us, the more opportunities for the algorithms to learn, and the better the butler can predict our needs and identify relevant services. The more we use the butler, the more power it will have.

Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Home cost less than $200 today, and that price will likely drop. So who will pay our butler’s salary, especially as it offers additional services? Advertisers, most likely. Our butler may recommend services and products that further the super-platform’s financial interests, rather than our own interests. By serving its true masters—the platforms—it may distort our view of the market and lead us to services and products that its masters wish to promote.

So it creates a kind of rut for you.  Like Facebook etc.

That's right. 

All of our technologies are self-reinforcing to make us believe even more strongly what we already believe.

Amazon is putting the Echo in Echo Chambers. 

Steven Levy of Backchannel talks with the VP of Alexa:

Amazon has sold 5 million Echoes. 

On manipulation:

If you’re one of the world’s 1.8 billion Facebook users, the service collects data on the things you and your friends do, the information you provide, your devices, your connections, and much more. It shares some of this information with your friends and some of it with third parties, and it makes deductions about your political leanings based on your activity. 

In 2012 Facebook conducted a study in which it manipulated some users’ news feeds to examine how people transmit positive and negative emotions to others. When Facebook surreptitiously reduced positive content in the News Feed, the users’ own status updates were also less positive; when Facebook surreptitiously reduced the friends’ negative content in its News Feed, the users were less negative themselves.

If Facebook can affect users’ mood and engagement by simply promoting some content in the users’ News Feed, just imagine the power of digital butlers to affect our feelings and behavior. By complimenting and cajoling, encouraging us to communicate with others, and sending personalized notes on our behalf, it potentially can affect our moods and those of our friends. Further, as many have reported recently, Facebook’s personalization may affect our views and opinions through a selective news feed.

As we welcome the digital assistants into our homes, we may appreciate the free service. But we won’t know the exact cost. As the digital butler expands its role in our daily lives, it can alter our worldview. By crafting notes for us, and suggesting “likes” for other posts it wrote for other people, our personal assistant can effectively manipulate us through this stimulation. “With two billion ‘likes’ a day and one billion comments,” psychiatrist Dr. Eva Ritvo wrote in Psychology Today, “Facebook stimulates the release of loads of dopamine as well as offering an effective cure to loneliness.” Imagine the dopamine spike when your butler secures a personal record in the number of “likes” for a political message it suggested. Your friends won’t know that your butler drafted the post. And none of us will know how that post might sway the public discourse in ways that benefit the super-platform.

Ben Thomson on why Alexa won:

One of the things that makes Amazon such an impressive company, though, is that modularity and willingness to make multiple bets: on October 24, 2014 Amazon took a $170 million write-off on the Fire Phone business; two weeks later, the company launched the Amazon Echo.

AMAZON’S OPERATING SYSTEMIt was apparent on day one that the Echo was a much more compelling product than the Fire Phone:

  • The physical device (the Echo) was simply a conduit for Alexa, Amazon’s new personal assistant. And critically, Alexa was a cloud service, the development of which Amazon is uniquely suited to in terms of culture, organizational structure, and experience. 
  • The Echo created its own market: a voice-based personal assistant in the home. Crucially, the home was the one place in the entire world where smartphones were not necessarily the most convenient device, or touch the easiest input method: more often than not your smartphone is charging, and talking to a device doesn’t carry the social baggage it might elsewhere.
  • There was an ecosystem to assemble: more and more “smart” products, from lightbulbs to switches, were coming on the market, but nearly every company trying to be the centerpiece of the connected home was relying on the smartphone.

Amazon seized the opportunity: first, Alexa was remarkably proficient from day one, particularly in terms of speed and accuracy (two factors that are far more important in encouraging regular use than the ability to answer trivia questions). Then, the company moved quickly to build out its ecosystem in two directions:

  • First, the company created a simple “Skills” framework that allowed smart devices to connect to Alexa and be controlled through a relatively strict verbal framework; in a vacuum it was less elegant than, say, Siri’s attempt to interpret natural language, but it was far simpler to implement. The payoff was already obvious at last year’s CES: Alexa support was everywhere.
  • Secondly, “Alexa” and “Echo” are different names because they are different products: Alexa is the voice assistant, and much like AWS and,

     Echo is Alexa’s first customer, but hardly its only one. This year CES announcements are dominated by products that run Alexa, including direct Echo competitorslampsset-top boxesTVs, and more

In short, Amazon is building the operating system of the home — its name is Alexa — and it has all of the qualities of an operating system you might expect:

  • All kinds of hardware manufacturers are lining up to build Alexa-enabled devices, and will inevitably compete with each other to improve quality and lower prices.
  • Even more devices and appliances are plugging into Alexa’s easy-to-use and flexible framework, creating the conditions for a moat: appliances are a lot more expensive than software, and lot longer lasting, which means everyone who buys something that works with Alexa is much less likely to switch

That leaves the business model, and this is perhaps Amazon’s biggest advantage of all: Google doesn’t really have one for voice, and Apple is for now paying an iPhone and Apple Watch strategy tax; should it build a Siri-device in the future it will likely include a healthy significant profit margin.

Amazon, meanwhile, doesn’t need to make a dime on Alexa, at least not directly: the vast majority of purchases are initiated at home; today that may mean creating a shopping list, but in the future it will mean ordering things for delivery, and for Prime customers the future is already here. Alexa just makes it that much easier, furthering Amazon’s goal of being the logistics provider — and tax collector — for basically everyone and everything.


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