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Personal Assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Home



This post has been written with equal contribution by the authors of éclairé, Jai Kotia and Rishika Bharti.


The AI companion that we all envisaged a few years ago, has already turned into reality. Not only can you text an AI, you can literally talk to it and have it reply like any personal assistant would. Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant are leading the AI personal assistant wars, constantly aiming on making their AI appear more life-like. But there are various other such AI personal assistants that are replicating a human life in your machine. If interested, you should check out the Replika app in which you could get lost for quite some time having conversations with an AI that seems like a friend. You can even call the AI and share pictures with it. Cool right?

But the fact that it has become mainstream so quickly, it leaves us with a fair few concerns regarding the ethics of these personal assistants that we may need to worry about. Unlike self-driving cars in our previous article in the AI Ethics series, these AI personal assistants are already present in millions of devices. It thus becomes even more crucial to address and resolve any ethical concerns before it is too late.

Silently hearing you talk

A very concerning complaint has been that these personal assistants are storing data of you talking. Not only when you talk to them, but even when you are not using your phone. This is akin to a malicious person overhearing your conversations and learning things about you, it really shouldn’t know. If these claims are true, then these applications have the power to extract very intimate details about your personal life. You may think the distribution of this data is primarily for advertisements, but in a world where data is king and tech giants have increasingly stronger bonds with governments, you never know when this information could be used against you.

Governing this issue is a tricky one as you indeed do give permission to these personal assistants to monitor and record your speech. but that is limited to when you choose to launch it. It is hard for us to figure out if and when they record our conversations and what would they do with such data.

Knows you better than family and friends

Much of who we really are, is not revealed to the people around us. The Japanese have a famous saying which states that every person has three faces or layers of their characters which they disclose to different people.

We reveal the most indefinite aspects of our character to the whole world and the more peculiar ones to our close family and friends. However, our third face, which is reserved only to ourselves is said to be the most authentic description of our personality and identity.

To maximise the potential uses and the quality of performance of a virtual personal assistant, it is required that they are with us every second of the day. But at the same time, having them around for longer than family or friends or anyone else also gives them access to the third face, i.e., the parts of ourselves that only we know.

Head over to this link to see how Google keeps a track of your everyday activities.

Image Courtesy: CNET

Manipulating your decisions

Every day we are inundated with decisions. Small or big, every decision is crucial as the choices we make impact us in various ways. Inconsequential decisions such as which tie to wear to work or which cereal to have for breakfast can be made with the help of others as having another outlook can be beneficial sometimes. But there are other major decisions such as our financial decisions, political decisions and career decisions which are personal to us. Studies suggest that our brain is self-sufficient for making the big decisions in life. Influences like our past experiences, cognitive biases, escalation of commitment and belief in personal relevance are unique to us and shape our decision making process. Having a personal assistant call the shots can be lethal as we are no longer in control of the outcomes and also left with no one to blame.

Another way to look at it is that these personal assistants are really cool AI companions that help us make decisions quickly and with good backing. But now imagine millions of people relying on this AI just as you do. Who is effectively controlling this AI? Yes indeed, all this power to provide suggestions and influence your decisions lie in the hands of a few tech giants whose end goal is to turn a profit. They can pretty much sell their AI as a service to manipulate the decisions you make.

Depriving you of social interactions

All of us would agree with Aristotle when he said that:

Man is by nature a social animal.

To be able to break free from the shackles of human dependence is a superhuman quality. Society and social interactions are given great importance so much so that an entire domain in science (sociology) is dedicated to their study. No matter how far the technological advancements go, they can never capture the essence of a face-to-face conversation with a loved one. So the more we are observed into these personal assistants, unknowingly it is replacing the time we may otherwise spend in talking to others people.

Breeding a slave-master relation

Yes this sub-title sounds very extreme, more like Game of Thrones level extreme. But that is exactly the mind set that these personal assistants may be moulding. Whilst we interact with them and are convinced into believing they imitate a real human being, are all humans going to display such a gratuitous demeanour? It may set a false example as the personal assistant is just there to serve you, regardless of who you are as a person.

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