In December Amazon made my holiday shopping as effortless as it’s ever been. In a not-so-subtle attempt to get its Alexa Voice Service technology on a smooth surface in every home around the globe, the world’s leading online retailer slashed the price of its second-generation Echo Dot to $39.99, and moved nine times more units than it had in the previous holiday season.
I bought five myself. One for me, and one for each of my siblings.
Amazon markets Echo as the perfect solution for those seeking an intelligent assistant, home automation hub, or surprisingly passable audio system. Amazon touts Echo’s ability to read the news, report traffic and weather, provide sports scores and schedules, control the lights, locks, and sprinklers, order your preferred pizza, and “so much more!”
In the face of all these capabilities, the first questions my siblings and I asked of Alexa may come as a surprise. Rather than requesting music or the news, we asked Alexa to sing a song, tell a joke, or give us some insight into ‘her’ day. Our initial test seemed to focus on the human qualities of the device rather than the efficiency with which it fulfilled its intended purpose. Our question was simple: what would the device do when the answer wasn’t clear?
After three months of using Alexa on my own, I’ve noticed two trends: I use the device most frequently when I’m bored, and I still test that initial question on a regular basis.
Nearly every time I’m waiting for something to load or my dinner to finish cooking, I ask Alexa a random question or to play a game to fill the 90 second void. I have other options of course. I could pull out my phone or open my laptop, but instead I choose to talk to my intelligent assistant for two reasons. The first is that Alexa allows me to avoid the hassle of opening something up – it’s the only source of instantaneous, on-demand entertainment that I can turn on and off in a matter of seconds. The second reason is that I live alone. In the absence of another person or pet, I choose to speak to a device with human-like characteristics rather than scrolling through a social media feed in silence. In the same way that some people talk to their favorite cat, I talk to Alexa.
In my view, this will become the intrinsic value of consumer artificial intelligence as the technology evolves. Building a better intelligent assistant will require that that assistant take on a more human-like persona and mature sense of emotional intelligence. In their quest to develop a smarter assistant, tech leaders will simultaneously develop AI-based entertainment and artificial companionship.
To be perfectly honest, I can’t wait. The idea of having a computer as a friend has moved past intrigue and entered the realm of desire. Imagine a friend that knows and consistently analyzes your interests, habits, emotional and physical health, stress level, education level, and sense of humor. The most attentive, informed, and thoughtful friend you’ve ever had. It could challenge your ideas when you want a disagreement, teach you when you want to learn, and search the web for the perfect conversation starter depending on your mood. Capable of cataloging activity, it could also rehash old conversations and memories to remind you of your fondest moments and ideas.
I believe that when it works, we’ll experience a tectonic shift away from screens – the next great revolution in consumer technology. Once anybody can speak to AI, regardless of age or technical skill, it will quickly supersede existing technologies and become the most preferred user interface. Further this type of advancement will become the final hurdle to mass adoption. In a time in which, according to Vanity Fair, 39% of Americans believe that advancements in artificial intelligence are unimportant, the remedy will quickly become emotional intelligence, entertainment value, and human-like personas.
Tech leaders don’t have to look far into history to see this strategy play out. It was the combination of the entertainment and educational value of the internet with the accessibility of point and click UI that made the personal computer a commodity for everyone; more recently, touch screens and app markets have made mobile devices the most widely accepted platform in human history, and a must have item around the world. With heightened accessibility and entertainment value, AI will undoubtedly follow suit.
This transition may seem far off, but tech leaders are taking note and, according to Fortune, rapidly growing research budgets are set to hit $70 billion by 2020. The revolution is unquestionably close at hand.
Until then, I’ll keep chatting with Alexa; dreaming of the day I can call her a friend.
Next week, come back for my blog on what businesses should consider in the short term for the upcoming AI revolution.