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Here come the personal robots: Do you want one?


Personal Robots

Like so many things in the digital age, we’ve all become quite blasé about the paper-thin computers we carry in our pockets that we talk to, and can understand and serve us.

Yes, since launching as part of the Apple OS, Siri has been the butt of many a joke, her vast knowledge often eclipsed by her propensity to completely miss the point (like when she recently pointed me to the nearest paint store when I asked her where I could see a matinee of Fifty Shades of Grey). She has been consistently fantastic, however, at taking down notes, emails and texts while I’m driving or otherwise busy. Sometimes I’ve just got major typing fatigue, and Siri’s there to do whatever I ask without a single tap or swipe.

A handful of new products are emerging to take this concept to the next level, many calling themselves “personal digital assistant,” “world’s first family robot” or “personal AI with a personality.” Some have names, like Siri, or allow you to name them yourself. They’re voice activated, can recognize your face, and are always listening, ready to serve you as soon as you “wake” them.

Is anyone else getting a little creeped out?

While the allure is undeniable (Siri, have tacos delivered!), I’m a little unsure of how it will feel to have a robot in the family. Imagine your “digital assistant” reading your child a bedtime story, taking a family photo, or simply tilting it’s head toward you while you’re talking. I’m not jaded— these technological advances feel like a quantum leap. But a simultaneously exciting and terrifying one. A robot that is always listening, always studying your habits, always capturing data? I can’t help but feel like the creep factor will outweigh the convenience.

Of course, [highlight] the convenience that technology offers is always a trade-off [/highlight], and there are some trade-offs are consentual, albeit a bit trepidatious. For example, Google controls my home’s temperature regulation (they bought Nest last year, the smart thermostat— my home has two). They know a lot about when my family is home, what we’re doing, and in which part of the house. If we had a Dropcam (another Smart Home company now part of Google’s empire), they could theoretically be listening to and watching our every move. I’m no luddite, not even close, but that’s unsettling.

Dropcam and Nest

Another example: I have knowingly given over my life to Amazon. They have a ridiculous amount of data about me, my family, what we buy and when. My purchase history reads like a trip down memory lane: The knee brace for when my daughter fell on the basketball court… the fancy paper guest towels I bought for my son’s Bar Mitzvah reception… the piles of plastic bins I bought when we moved into our new house… the Fonuts (those are L.A. vegan donuts, for the uninitiated) my team ordered for “research and development” (ahem). Everything Amazon has done throughout our relationship has been to help make it easier for me to buy things from them. And when it comes to shopping for anything (even groceries), they’re my first stop. So when Amazon’s personal digital assistant shows up at Casa Knobloch, at least I’ll be clear on why they’ve created it: to learn more about my interests, my preferences and to help me shop with the least amount of friction. You can ask Echo to “add parmesan cheese” to your shopping list, without touching your phone or leaving the couch.

Convenience has won in these two cases, but I can’t say it doesn’t give me pause when I think about how much information these companies can glean from these products I willingly put into my life.

The best minds of science, like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, are concerned about the potential threats of artificial intelligence. I’m a little less worried about that (they concede that we’re hundreds of years away from truly dangerous robots), but definitely concerned that young upstart companies like RobotBase or Cubic Robotics won’t have the security measures in place to prevent my personal data from ending up in the wrong hands. If the recklessness of Uber executives is any indication of a worst-case scenario, a personal robot would feel more like a personal spy.

Are you worried about this stuff? Would you let a personal robot into your family? Let me know in the comments.



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