Robots – defined in this case as artificially intelligent machines – are revolutionizing how humans go about their daily business. Amazon’s robotic “personal assistant,” known as “Alexa,” may be the first of the new personally relatable machines. Rachel Botsman, renowned speaker and author of the highly anticipated book “Who Can You Trust?” (Hachette, November 2017) and expert on trust in the digital age, introduced her three year-old daughter Grace to Alexa, and what ensued was an experiment in how the upcoming generation will relate to machines.
In an article for The New York Times, Botsman recounts how Grace progressed from asking Alexa simple questions about the weather to advice on what to wear, all while treating the device as a human peer.
“Today, we’re no longer trusting machines just to do something, but to decide what to do and when to do it,” writes Botsman.
Struck by Grace’s placement of trust in a machine, Botsman says treat this behavior as evidence of a major shift in how humans view such entities. When the toddler began questioning Alexa on what she should buy, and the “assistant” happily obliged, Botsman began to ponder the consequences. “It’s these kind of intersections – like this small collision between robot ‘helpfulness’ and a latent commercial agenda – that can make parents like me start to wonder about the ethical niceties of this brave new bot world,” she writes. “Alexa, after all, is not ‘Alexa’. She’s a corporate algorithm in a black box.” The opportunities for manipulation are immense, warns Botsman.
As the foremost thought leader on the issue of how trust will evolve in this technologically revolutionary era, Botsman views her experience as an opportunity to demonstrate how the younger generation can be prepared for what is to come next. “How do we teach our children to question not only the security and privacy implications,” asks Botsman, “but also the ethical and commercial intentions of a device designed by marketing and technology experts?” That is the question which Botsman poses time and again, and one to which humanity will continue to return.
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