On November 5, 2019, Karen Hao reported in MIT Technology Review:
I started using Alexa before it was cool. I bought a first-generation Echo a few months after its launch because Amazon.com showed me a banner ad as I was shopping for new speakers. After it arrived, my then-roommate, a software engineer at Google, eagerly compared Alexa’s capabilities with those of her Google Assistant. Alexa didn’t really measure up. But as far as I was concerned, it did everything I wanted: it played my favorite songs, sounded my morning alarms, and sometimes told me the news and weather.
Five years later, my simple desires have been eclipsed by Amazon’s ambitions. Alexa is now distributed everywhere, capable of controlling more than 85,000 smart home products from TVs to doorbells to earbuds. It can execute over 100,000 “skills” and counting. It processes billions of interactions a week, generating huge quantities of data about your schedule, your preferences, and your whereabouts. Alexa has turned into an empire, and Amazon is only getting started.
Speaking with MIT Technology Review, Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s head scientist, has now revealed further details about where Alexa is headed next. The crux of the plan is for the voice assistant to move from passive to proactive interactions. Rather than wait for and respond to requests, Alexa will anticipate what the user might want. The idea is to turn Alexa into an omnipresent companion that actively shapes and orchestrates your life. This will require Alexa to get to know you better than ever before.In fact Prasad, who will outline his vision for Alexa’s future at WebSummit in Lisbon, Portugal, later today, has already given the world a sneak preview of what this shift might look like. In June at the re:Mars conference, he demoed a feature called Alexa Conversations, showing how it might be used to help you plan a night out. Instead of manually initiating a new request for every part of the evening, you would need only to begin the conversation—for example, by asking to book movie tickets. Alexa would then follow up to ask whether you also wanted to make a restaurant reservation or call an Uber.
To power this transition, Amazon needs both hardware and software. In September, the tech giant launched a suite of “on the go” Alexa products, including the Echo Buds (wireless earphones) and Echo Loop (a smart ring). All these new products let Alexa listen to and log data about a dramatically larger portion of your life, the better to offer assistance informed by your whereabouts, your actions, and your preferences.
From a software perspective, these abilities will require Alexa to use new methods for processing and understanding all the disparate sources of information. In the last five years, Prasad’s team has focused on building the assistant’s mastery of AI fundamentals, like basic speech and video recognition, and expanding its natural-language understanding. On top of this foundation, they have now begun developing Alexa’s intelligent prediction and decision-making abilities and—increasingly—its capacity for higher-level reasoning. The goal, in other words, is for Alexa’s AI abilities to get far more sophisticated within a few years …
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Alexa is part of the Internet of Things (IoT), made possible through technological advances in connectivity.
Internet of Things (IoT) – the control of multiple devices through the Internet or a local network via a computer or smartphone equipped with the appropriate apps (applications).
The IoT is already in use in many manufacturing processes involving connectivity with and between robotic devices. In healthcare, it makes possible robotic surgery and remote monitoring. In transportation, it is behind self-driving cars, trucks, and buses.
For the home-owning or apartment dwelling consumer, a voice command or a mere touch of a phone or tablet screen can remote-control everything electrical or mechanical in their home environment from wherever they are: the heating, air conditioning, lighting, door locks, security cameras, alarm system, hot tub, sauna, television, stereo, coffee-brewer, oven, range top, crockpot, gender-specific personal robot, and more. To the capitalist entrepreneur, it would be difficult to imagine a savvy consumer not yearning for the ultimate comfort-oriented and effort-saving convenience of IoT.
The IoT is one of the reasons for the installation of the next-generation telecommunications network known as 5G, which utilizes high radiofrequency (microwave) electromagnetic waves transmissible over relatively short distances, requiring many more transmission towers (than 4G) spaced more closely apart. The other reason, of course, is the ability to more precisely monitor user location, communication, and behavior in the home as well as out.
The health risks of chronic microwave exposure to the general population are negligible when compared with the convenience benefits to the consumer, the economic benefits to multiple related industries, and the functional benefits to our security agencies.
Connectivity – direct communication between persons, persons and groups, persons and objects, or between objects.
Person-to-person communication has always been by voice, gesture, expression, posture, and the emission of pheromones. Person-to-group communication was not much different, still mainly by voice but formalized into lectures (didactics), speeches (oratory), political (rhetoric), and religious (sermons). After the invention of the printing press, person-to-group connectivity was augmented by pamphlets, fliers, posters, books, magazines, and newspapers, the last two of which eventually became the legacy media. Then came a marked increase in connectivity, both person-to-person and person-to-group, through the telephone, telegraph, radio and television.
Now, of course, we have better ways of connectivity such as computer networks (the Internet), social media, and the smartphone. Besides the legacy media, we have the alternative media, where anyone can communicate with limitless others as a contributor, investigator, reporter, critic, blogger, tweeter, videographer, activist, revisionist, conspiracist, marketer, or entertainer.
All these remarkable changes were incremental but accelerated markedly in the postmodern and post-postmodern periods following the Second World War. A new form of connectivity, with and between objects—as in robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation, voice-control, unmanned aerial vehicles, and self-driving cars—also began during those periods.
The latest exploitation of the Internet, called the Internet of Things (IoT), involves expanded communication between interconnected objects. When applied to industry, closed networks of computers and robots monitor and control manufacturing processes with minimal human participation. In the home, a consumer armed with a smartphone and the appropriate IoT apps can monitor and control multiple interconnected utilities, devices, appliances, and objects with embedded sensors, each with its unique IP address or URI. Clearly, this home-based personal version of IoT is more about marketing and data collection than genuine consumer need or convenience. Supporters of IoT see an emerging “fourth industrial revolution;” marketers see unlimited potential for directed advertising; hackers see more possibilities for intrusion; and our security agencies see exciting new opportunities for behavioral monitoring, tracking, and surveilling everyone, even in their homes.
An equally innovative use of the new connectivity is happening in the People’s Republic of China. By combining the latest 5G Internet transmission, high definition closed circuit television, facial recognition technology, massive data storage, and artificial intelligence (AI), the Chinese government is implementing audio-visual surveillance of its people for the purpose of improving their behavior. Every Chinese urbanite gets their own personal social credit score with rewards for good behavior and penalties for bad. Three US technology “giants” (Microsoft, Apple, and Google) assisted China in this endeavor. They will certainly be on the “ground floor” when something like it comes to the United States, where it is much needed to bring an end to hate speech, racism, and white supremacism.
Note: Much of the technology we enjoy today was originally purposed for the military. The first jet aircraft were military, and from radar came television and microwave ovens. Lest we forget, the Internet was originally ARPANET, developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense (now DARPA), originally for exclusive use by the military. It is no surprise, then, that the new connectivity has been a boon to its first beneficiaries. On one level is drone warfare, where remotely guided strikes on targeted individuals or groups in distant lands can neutralize the leadership of an enemy and their families. On a higher level, commanding officers can exert full spectrum dominance with overwhelming force against an asymmetrical enemy from the comfort of their secure command posts safely distant from actual combat, surrounded by real-time displays of data supplied by satellite, AWACs, and live audio-visual feeds. They can maintain comprehensive situational awareness of the battlefield, communicate with their troops down to the squad level, and integrate their input with the output of naval assets and air support.
Caveat: All versions of the new connectivity in their current state are vulnerable to disruption by loss of electrical power, hacking, and jamming. The military version is obviously less effective and possibly ineffective against an enemy with symmetrical capabilities.