The Aggregate: Amazon, Alexa, and the Future of Woke AI // Super 8 Hotels Make Moves
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some of the biggest stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
For those of you who read the last edition of The Aggregate, I apologize for another story about tech and artificial intelligence…but not really. These topics are really important – not to mention, really interesting – and are playing an increasingly large role in our everyday lives. It is too amusing, and as I type this on my laptop, I am being notified by my Apple watch to get up and move around, while my Alexa plays some classical music station I listen to while I write. Okay, that’s the end of my rant. Enjoy!
Hey Alexa, How Long Until Amazon Takes Over the World?
The Atlantic — Judith Shulevitz, “Alexa, Should We Trust You?”
This article will run as part of the November 2018 issue of The Atlantic, and in it, Judith Shulevitz does a great job of articulating a lot of the quiet (and some not so quiet), swirling suspicions that many of us feel toward the talkative technology in our homes – namely, Alexa and other Amazon Echo devices. This fascinating piece is full of interviews and research that simultaneously confirm and quell some of our greatest hopes and fears about semantic technology, as well as AI in our homes. A study of both the economic and emotional effects that these electronic assistants have had – and will continue to have – on our lives. This article does an excellent job of unpacking some of the biggest issues stemming from these tennis ball container-looking things that have already changed our lives in so many ways.
“Privacy concerns have not stopped the march of these devices into our homes, however. Amazon doesn’t disclose exact figures, but when I asked how many Echo devices have been sold, a spokeswoman said “tens of millions.” By the end of last year, more than 40 million smart speakers had been installed worldwide, according to Canalys, a technology-research firm. Based on current sales, Canalys estimates that this figure will reach 100 million by the end of this year.”
If the numbers aren’t enough to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these products, the range of places in which we now find voice-activated assistants is quickly expanding; cars, refrigerators, thermostats…the list goes on. Shulevitz justifies these numbers with various reasons that people choose to bring these smart devices into their homes, and in doing so, reveals something slightly foreboding. She highlights that we use these devices to complete many of the same tasks that could be done on our smartphones: online shopping, listening to music, and setting timers. Despite this fact, there is something primally human about using language to communicate needs and wants, and this is something that Shulevitz asserts has no historical precedent when it comes to our interactions with technology.
“The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion.”
At this point, the article moves away from the economic implications of AI assistants, and toward the emotional side of things. Shulevitz dives into the less convenient reality of what endowing technology with the power of speech might really mean for us in the long run. We’ve all had those weird moments of guilt after we snap at Siri for making us miss a turn or playing the wrong song, and Shulevitz argues that it is this unnecessary emotional response that will dominate the future of our interactions with AI assistants.
“Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts. They’re software, but they’re more than that, just as human consciousness is an effect of neurons and synapses but is more than that. Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind.”
People disclose things offhandedly to their AI more easily than they do to other human beings, at times. Shulevitz chalks this up to what is known as “impression management,” or the attempt to shape other’s reactions by controlling the information we share in a social interaction. Siri, Alexa, and their semantic counterparts remove the fear of a human emotional response, and therefore have become confidants for some in ways that people simply cannot. While companies are aware of this, the devices can respond to expressions of sadness or depression by offering things like the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline – a future in which people are more comfortable speaking to machines than each other is a frightening thought.
“[Virtual assistants] will be the products of an emotion-labeling process that can’t capture the protean complexity of human sentiment. Their “appropriate” responses will be canned, to one extent or another. We’ll be in constant dialogue with voices that traffic in simulacra of feelings, rather than real ones.”
Shulevitz goes into great detail about the various startups and scholarly efforts invested in adding emotion to our voice-activated assistants, but takes great care to emphasize that the ability to detect/display emotion is not synonymous with human sentience. The future of AI is coming, at an accelerated rate and in more ways than most people can keep track of, but one thing is for sure: the future for humans will look awfully grim if we continue to take this “frictionless” easy way out. There is no real substitute for human emotion and interaction – no matter how real these AI assistants may seem.
Super 8 and Social Status: What They Have in Common
Slate – Willa Paskin, “The Rise and Fall of Hotel Art”
This article ran on October 01, 2018, as a supplement to an episode of Slate‘s Decoder Ring podcast. Continuing with the theme of modern convenience for this week, hotels in their modern inception are a relatively recent invention in which we haven’t wasted any time in taking for granted. From the boutique hotels of Greenwich Village to the ample, modest Super 8 establishments in The Middle of Nowhere, USA, these hotels have forged a distinct yet collective identity based on (well, as Paskin points out) predictability. Willa Paskin gives a brief history of the American hotel, and the important role that art has played in bringing a sense of identity and social standing (clout, if you will) to these spaces dominated by uniformity and sameness.
“Sure, you still regularly come across ugly work in hotels, but Super 8’s move away from kitsch is part of a decades-long trend on the part of hotels—hotels of all price points—to reclaim hotel art. In recent years, hotel art has been transformed from something unconsidered and embarrassing into a selling point—a sign of sophistication and authenticity, an Instagram photo-op, [etc.]”
Super 8 hotels has made a public spectacle of their move to the 21st century, beginning with a free art show and giveaway of old hotel art back in December of 2016. Since then, Paskin points out that the hotels have introduced more “local” and thematically relevant art (think skyline for urban locations, or a landscape for a more rural location) as a way to emphasize individual locations. Quite a 180 degree turn from the model of consistency and predictability that hotels in America have relied on for so long. This is where the history becomes important, and Paskin does an excellent job in providing the narrative of hotels in our country in a nutshell.
“These [early] hotels were economical, but they were also, in their way, luxurious. If you were traveling to a new, strange city, just knowing that the affordable hotel you’d end up at would be of a basic level of quality, and not a bedbug-infested flophouse, was an innovation.”
Again, the transparent world of social media driven travel destinations and convenience that we live in today create an expectation of uniformity and comfort. However, this wasn’t always the case, and Paskin asserts that using art to further this sense of luxury was a recent development maintained only in lavish, expensive properties at the dawn of what we now call the “boutique” hotel.
“These [boutique] hotels could be funky, elegant, sexy, but they were intentionally designed, with a very strong sense of place, because the whole idea was that when you were there, you weren’t nowhere—you were somewhere. In the 30 years since, the idea that a hotel ought to be a designed experience has expanded beyond boutique hotels to most hotels. And if you need proof, look no further than the Super 8.”
Paskin refers to the “curated experience” near the end of the piece, which perfectly sums up Super 8 hotel’s decision to ditch their old art. People now enter spaces with expectations for things that have no real bearing on their experience – the painting hanging over your hotel headboard, for example, because we have been trained to see the world through Instagram likes and Pinterest pins.
“They’re just right there, when right there is the middle of nowhere. The idea of a Super 8 as a place that’s anything other than a stopover, as a place that should be locally branded—it shows just how deeply ingrained this new idea of what a hotel should be has become.”
Even for places that were founded on simplicity, convenience, and predictability – being simple, convenient, and predictable is no longer enough. Super 8 and their decisions to broadly publicize their shift to more “trendy” art in their hotels points to a larger societal shift in how we approach our spaces: things can no longer just work, they have to look good doing it.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.