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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Alexa taught me that a home can only ever be as smart as the people who live in it

AI has the potential to revolutionise our world, but think twice before you fill your house with sophisticated listening devices

Devices such as Alexa are here to stay, but the question is how essential they will be to our daily lives. Bloomberg
Devices such as Alexa are here to stay, but the question is how essential they will be to our daily lives. Bloomberg

Almost every day we hear about how artificial intelligence is changing the world we live in. This week, Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, said that AI will be a key weapon in the fight against the threat of tuberculosis, which claims the lives of more than two million people every year. Mr Al Olama told reporters that new technology will allow healthcare teams to use tools supported by AI to perform group examinations on individuals in areas where TB has been detected. That in turn should transform treatment protocols and will potentially save many lives.

Despite such obvious examples of the good that AI can bring to our lives, many people remain vexed by what the future will look like when the robots do finally take over.

Some commentators imagine a binary world of either “leisure heaven” (we will all enjoy a vast amount of free time because robots are doing most of the hard graft) or “workless hell” (we won’t have any form of income because they have taken all the jobs).

I don’t think either scenario represents our future: a third way, much like the world the AI minister articulates, where artificial intelligence helps speed up and improve work practices but does not replace humans altogether, is far more likely. I also subscribe to the view outlined by our columnist Gavin Esler on these pages that because humans communicate and co-operate so effectively, it is too soon to write us off just yet. I need look no further than the technology in my own home for the reason why I believe that will be the case.

Eighteen months ago, we introduced Alexa, an electronic assistant made by Amazon, into our household. We now have Echo devices all over the house, each one ready to wake up as soon as it hears its name. While competing with other platforms, such as Google and Apple, Amazon’s smart speaker has managed to get into many homes, including ours, through a mix of blanket marketing on its mothership’s website and a relatively affordable price point. One way or another, such devices are here to stay. But it is still right to question how central will they really be in our lives?

Amazon persistently pushes its key message that Alexa has more than 50,000 skills, far more than rival devices, and is “always getting smarter” thanks to the addition of new features. Every week Amazon messages subscribers with details of those new features, positioning the device as an indispensable part of the smart home of today and tomorrow: want to be lulled to sleep by the sounds of a thunderstorm or know what time the latest blockbuster action film is showing at the cinema? Alexa can do that for you.

Alexa’s big idea, that our coffee machines, our air conditioning and our lights can all be controlled through voice commands is spectacular and, from a simplistic consumer point of view, it puts the robots to work so you don’t have to. But it turns out that smart homes are only as smart as the people who live in them.

Thousands of commands are not employed by most users, just like the vast majority of the thousands of pages of encyclopedia volumes that used to sit gathering dust on family bookshelves all over the world.

My own Alexa experience is that it provides a great music library, a global radio station and can remind me to do things, but it hasn’t yet made our home all that much smarter. Functions such as its ability to tell you a joke or inform you about the origins of Halloween are gimmicks to superficially impress those who haven’t yet adopted Alexa, rather than features you can’t live without. Certainly, we are still a long way from the dark world imagined in the 2013 movie Her, where an operating system and a lonely man embark on an unlikely and intense relationship.

And the Alexa project is not engineering some great rewiring of our brains, in part because that ship has already sailed and the internet has already begun to change the way we remember things and the knowledge we retain. Educators have begun to respond to this, as this paper reported this week, with one Dubai college abolishing exams for its students, fearing that they were merely “memorisation tests” rather than true tests of knowledge. That’s both a radical and realistic assessment.

What is still to be answered is what happens to all the information that electronic assistants learn about their users. What does Alexa do with the knowledge that I’ve been enquiring about the roots of Halloween?

At Gitex in Dubai this month, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, said there should be greater “openness and freedom” and that the “silos of data” that some companies hold on their users must be brought down.

If every home is to be a smart home, fitted with listening devices ready to help us live our lives, then customer charters and a concerted push towards transparency will have to follow. Too many high-profile data hacks show us how much of our privacy can be violated if information falls into the wrong hands. Until we reach that point, smart homes may not be all that clever.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National