Rise of the Digital Assistant

“Hello, I’m Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.” – The Macintosh 128K (1984)

In the case of science fiction, the domestic realm is often the environment most recognizable to the viewer. It is the host for the majority of familiar interactions. Humans need to eat and sleep and despite technological advancements, some things will always remain, such as the desire for comfort and entertainment. The futuristic home, thus becomes an object that must actively cater to these desires and requirements. For example, in the Marvel Studios motion picture, Iron Man, Tony Stark’s house is an augmented intelligent system that responds to every whim of its inhabitant. Here, walls are screens, systems are voice activated, and robot arms replace servants.

As it happens, Bill Gates’s house is not so different from Stark’s mansion. Nicknamed Xanadu 2.0 (a cinematic reference to Citizen Kane), the house features GPS tracking, customizable LCD screens, and sensors that modulate temperature and lighting based on the occupant’s preferences.1 The house of the future is very much a reality. But the similarity between Gates’s futuristic house and Stark’s fictional futuristic house highlights not only the potential of technological innovation, but the subtext of science fiction: desire. When presented with images of both houses, the question inevitably becomes: will everyone have this house in the future? To which the answer is increasingly positive. The spread of “smart” systems has accelerated to the point where one need not design a custom home for it to be intelligent. There are a number of consumer available devices that emulate Xanadu’s features: thermostats which will learn user’s habits and optimize HVAC usage, and devices that use voice recognition to control light and power switches, read the news, and play music throughout the house (see Amazon’s Echo). One trip to Home Depot, and you can retrofit your home into something straight out of Blade Runner. It seems that our desire for domestic automation will soon offer a wide range of new relationships between humans and their homes. As their intelligence increases, we expect more from them, talk to them, and are constantly connected to them via mobile devices and digital concierge apps.

To date, major tech companies have released a handful of artificially “intelligent” personal assistants. Though the computational prowess of these systems has not reached Asimovian self-awareness, they are nevertheless capable of learning specific behaviors and responding in highly advanced ways.2 Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, for instance, are capable of analyzing individual user’s speech patterns and “learning” their voices.3 With the wide proliferation of smartphones, the arms race to true artificial intelligence is afoot, led by tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM. But the race is not limited to operating system manufacturers. Facebook recently unveiled its limited release “M,” a virtual assistant that works in conjunction with human customer service teams to widen its knowledge base and capabilities. Facebook’s advantage is that its “assistant” can be a true concierge, able to make reservations and purchase, and even be on hold with the cable company.5 Its disadvantage is that in its current state it relies on human input; more of an android than an autonomous robot.

But Facebook’s M also furthers the notion of desire in domesticity. Coming from the periphery of the artificial intelligence field, M more closely resembles a high end butler than an intelligent scheduler. The primary selling point of the application therefore becomes the quality of the domestic work it can do; schedule Uber requests, buy anniversary presents, etc. We can liken M to Iron Man’s virtual assistant Jarvis. Fans will note that this character began as Tony Stark’s butler in the comic books, but was reimagined as an artificially intelligent system, J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) for the motion pictures. The combination of domestic personal assistant and AI gives the character a curious position in the sci-fi universe, self aware and capable of controlling any component connected to its network, yet simultaneously subservient.

Fear of potential problems in a system like J.A.R.V.I.S. are recurring themes in science fiction from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 to Her’s operating system, Samantha. These movie parallels present moral quandaries and cultivate skepticism of limitless intelligence for the machine. From conception, the applications reflect a desire for help and comfort with daily tasks, but SF films also show us that widespread access to a high class digital butler would fundamentally change daily social interactions and rituals within the home, especially if we think of them as pseudo-human. As a way of alleviating these fears, Benjamin H. Bratton has suggested that we shouldn’t measure AI’s intelligence against ours, but think of it as a distinct entity, something beyond “a machine version of our own reflection.”6 Seen in this light, AI can either acknowledge and aid the human condition or ignore it altogether. At the social level, this is an attempt at restructuring the domestic roles of humans and machines, and achieving a balance between “smart home” and “machine-servant.” The questions then become: to what extent do we develop the intelligence of our subservient systems? And do we give them physical form or embed them as networks within our existing environments?

1.“19 Facts About Bill Gates’s House,” accessed September 15th, 2015,http://www.businessinsider.com/19-facts-about-bill-gates-house-2014-11.
2. This observation is based on three consumer range products: Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon Echo, and Apple Siri. All of these intelligent assistants are designed to learn behaviors and improve their limited functions based on those inputs. As of 2015, the are able to recognize voice controls, respond, conduct search functions, and interact with other software and hardware.
3. “Siri,” accessed October 1st, 2015, http://www.apple.com/ios/siri/.
4. “Facebook Launches M, Its Bold Answer to Siri and Cortana,” accessed September 20th, 2015, http://www.wired.com/2015/08/facebook-launches-m-new-kind-virtual-assistant/.
5. Benjamin H. Bratton, “Outing A.I.: Beyond the Turing Test,” accessed November 5th, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/outing-a-i-beyond-the-turing-test/.

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