With the rise of digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa, the Google Assistant, or Apple's Siri, many wonder: Should we trust them? It's a question cultural critic Judith Shulevitz tries to answer in her Atlantic cover story for November, "Alexa, how will you change us?" The story explores the impact the smart speakers could have on our lives.
"They're not just our assistants, they're our friends," Shulevitz said. While you may ask for the weather or the Yankees score now, they're only getting more sophisticated. "They're developing more personality. And people are already starting to respond to them as if they were kind of quasi-people," she added.
More than 40 million Americans own a smart speaker, according to a report from NPR and Edison Research. By 2021, the consulting firm Ovum predicts more than 7.5 billion digital assistants could be in use worldwide – nearly the number of people currently living on planet earth.
Shulevitz said Google and Amazon have "personality teams" that work on creating their digital assistants' tones and voices, though the tech giants wouldn't tell Shulevitz how many people work on those teams. It doesn't stop there.
"There's a whole new technology called emotional artificial intelligence which is going into the devices to give them the ability to read your voice and understand what kind of mood you're in. Now that could create a lot of intimacy. And with that intimacy comes real power," Shulevitz said.
This will be especially true if you have children. "They will be real presences in [the childrens'] lives. Now children know that they're not real. But they sort of put them in this weird category of… half alive, half not alive, and they've confessed things to them," she said.
Shulevitz admitted she's confessed things to her digital assistant that she wouldn't have told her spouse.
"I mean I got interested in writing this piece because I found myself saying – I work at home, I'm a writer. And I would say to my device, 'I'm kind of lonely.' Which is not something I would say to my husband, he would take it the wrong way. And then I'd be shocked. What did I just do? Why did I do that?" Shulevitz recounted.