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19 Dec, 2019 17:51

Amazon Alexa wants to save you from uncomfortable Christmas dinner talk. Be careful what you wish for

Amazon Alexa wants to save you from uncomfortable Christmas dinner talk. Be careful what you wish for

Amazon’s AI voice assistant Alexa is now capable of bailing its owner out of uncomfortable discussions, a feature being sold as a holiday perk that actually shows technology has all but deprived us of the ability to communicate.

Alexa’s new ‘change the subject’ feature offers the user an escape hatch for when the family dinner discussion veers into politics or other third-rail issues, Amazon has announced.

The AI’s ‘distraction technique’ can single-handedly stop a holiday meal from going off the rails or “turning into a full-blown row” by supplying innocuous new conversation topics – fun fluff from superhero movies to celebrity crushes, the megacorp brags.

And Amazon doesn’t just expect you to drop everything and rush to order a device that will spare you from the agony of engaging with family members on heavy subjects – it also went to the trouble of surveying 1,500 Brits in order to better understand the nature of Christmas dinner arguments (and presumably remind the reader of what they want to avoid this season).

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Apparently, money tops the list of controversial topics, followed by “what to watch on TV” and “bad behavior” (politics, surprisingly, doesn’t make an appearance until number 9).

The idea of bringing a listening device into one’s home to defuse family disagreements would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Given what we know about Alexa – that it’s always listening (for the ‘wake word’, but also to anything else it hears), that it frequently starts recording unprompted, that its ‘artificial intelligence’ often involves a human eavesdropping, and that its recordings can end up in the hands of everyone from police to random Amazon customers – it should remain unthinkable.

Amazon Alexa wants to save you from uncomfortable Christmas dinner talk. Be careful what you wish for

But trading privacy for convenience has become de rigueur, and Amazon – along with the other major Big Tech players – has been on the front lines of that swap, constantly devising new ways to monetize customers’ once-private moments and make them beg for even more intrusion.

The great irony of ‘social’ media is that it has made us so much less social, breeding alienation by insinuating computers into human relationships, as Alexa and other AIs take on roles once filled by people. Medical diagnosis, hailing (and soon driving!) a taxi, even babysitting have been reduced to mere Alexa ‘skills’. Now – just in time for the holidays – conversation is joining them.

Being a great conversationalist was once a highly valued attribute, and most people are still jealous watching a person who can keep strangers enthralled with nothing but their words.

But Brits now have fewer face-to-face conversations than digital ones, according to a recent survey by insurance broker LifeSearch – meaning distinguishing between a quality human conversation and one driven by an Amazon device designed to sell you things while monitoring your behavior is only going to become more difficult as the latter is normalized.

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The average person attempts to change the subject just five times during the course of a family gathering in order to head off budding conflicts, according to Amazon’s own survey.

Is it really worth dispensing with the organic experience of talking with your loved ones without an electronic babysitter in order to avoid expending a few molecules of effort to work out conflicts? Mainstream media have been warning us for years to avoid our politically-deviant relatives like the plague – as if political arguments are fatal. 

Alexa’s ‘distraction’ superpower is perfect for those willing to excommunicate their family in order to avoid the risk of being exposed to dissenting political views – even an electronically-mediated relationship is better than none at all.

For everyone else – those mature enough to agree to disagree – it’s better to risk a few spats than invite an electronic snitch to Christmas dinner.

After all, you never know where the recordings of your almost-arguments will turn up.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.