For the past 30 years, futurist Ray Kurzweil has been measuring technological innovation and proclaiming that we will reach what he calls the ‘Singularity’ by the 2020’s. Reaching the Singularity means that technological growth will become uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. Kurzweil has many opponents, but regardless of whether his predictions are true, he leads us to consider a very important point. As technological development remains in our control, we should feel compelled to consider whether or not we should apply technology in a certain way, rather than only if it can be applied. To reflect on this point we’ll look to 2018 when Amazon released a version of its Echo Dot device aimed at children.
The Alexa platform (which is a virtual assistant) is present in all Amazon’s own products (like the Dot) as well as ‘smart-home’ products (like refrigerators). Alexa has the ability to listen continuously and can detect voice commands, even if they are not spoken directly into a microphone. The technology can ignore background noise like television or general conversation and pick up commands. These commands are then captured and processed using natural language processing (a form of AI) and the platform provides a response to the command. We can envision the leadership of Amazon carefully crafting a strategy to expand Alexa into new channels, exploring different business models, and positioning this platform to support their other revenue-generating business lines. When we consider some of the downstream effects the platform may have on children, it is not clear that company management participated in a rigorous debate over the ethics of the move.
Most adults know that you shouldn’t believe everything you read or hear on the internet. When interacting with Alexa and receiving answers to questions, children do not have the capability of validating, or even questioning, incorrect information. Child development experts have rightly questioned whether this type of back-and-forth with a device would diminish critical thinking skills.
Another topic of concern is privacy. Adults may be able to question what is true on the internet, but they certainly do not spend time reading or understanding privacy agreements. In Amazon’s privacy disclosure for the Echo Dot Kids, which we can be certain was not read by the children, Amazon stated that it may collect and share their information with selected affiliated businesses. Presumably, this information will be sold to Disney or toy retailers to target ads to children.
It is difficult to imagine Amazon management in charge of this launch thought about items like children’s privacy and child development. They seem to have spent their time exploring how the technology could be applied in ways that help them achieve their business goals, and did not pause to ask if the technology should be applied in this way. As companies begin to make the transition to digital technologies and implement AI, management teams will find themselves in the same situation as Amazon and need to question the consequences of using technologies in certain ways. Just as management adjusted strategy based on the effects of pollution back in the 1970’s, we need companies to become aware of the negative effects of technology. When exploring a new and exciting application of AI, management should consult multi-disciplinary experts and consider the opinions of various stakeholders- although Alexa should not be one of them.