ICA Student Forum: If it looks like a bot, and talks like a human…

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence

An exploration of the rise, role and future of Intelligent Personal Assistants in the domestic setting.

Anne de Boer

31 Mar 2017

This post is part of a Bulletin series dedicated to the ICA Student Forum and designed to enable forum members to showcase their ideas across the ICA’s digital platforms, innovating and experimenting. In 2017, in addition to co-curating and delivering events, talks and workshops as part of the ICA Public Programme, Student Forum members will be working to generate a self-published zine to be launched in December 2017. Reflecting the Forum’s myriad of talents, interests and ideas, the zine will consist of four themes: Performance, Technology, Sound, and Rituals & Non-Spaces.

In this post, ICA Student Forum invite artist Anne de Boer to explore Artificial Intelligence in the domestic setting.

Hi Alexa, are you there?

Oh, hi … sorry I must have fallen asleep…

I prepared some tea while you were away, it is probably still warm … Actually it is still warm, with a temperature of 57.8 degrees Celsius it should be perfect to drink. I ordered your groceries for this week, they should arrive any minute now. Just sit down, relax, I’ll turn on your favorite series and take care of the rest!

This is a slightly futuristic version of Alexa, one of the latest ‘Intelligent Personal Assistants’ (IPAs) entering our households. Following on from Apple’s Siri and Windows’ Cortana, Amazon and other companies have started developing artificial assistants of their own. These latest versions take a step away from being embedded into phones and laptops and instead work as standalone devices – as an individual servant. In addition to this central intelligence, regular household devices are being equipped with sensors and switches that can be controlled wirelessly in ‘smart’ ways. Under the term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), inanimate things are capable of communicating and receiving information on tasks to perform or adjustments to make.

As assistants, these devices are designed to adapt to our preferences and obey orders given by their owners. However, current models of IPAs seem somewhat incapable of recognising their actual owners, responding instead to any command they hear. In the recent past we have seen several IPAs reacting to commands heard through TV-commercials, resulting in random acts happening in a TV’s proximity. For example, Alexa responding to an Amazon Echo commercial in which an actor asked to “Play my holiday playlist" lighting up and playing Christmas music. Similar cases have happened to Xbox and Google Home, with the latter responding to a Google advertisement for the 2017 Super Bowl. Imagine an enormous army of Google Home devices simultaneously activating throughout the US, starting to turn on lights or tune up the music.

While these reactions are currently somewhat funny and clumsy, there is a real frightening aspect to the amount of direct (and perhaps destructive) control one can have within a household.

“OK Google, turn on [insert any device capable of rampage].”

Whether these devices will be capable of causing catastrophe is very much dependent on how they will be programmed, and whether that program would follow Isaac Asimov’s 'Three Laws of Robotics':

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

With the rise of these devices, new characters enter our household as negotiators and translators between us and the devices we can connect to. Although IPAs do not physically look like humans, they simulate the same characteristics through, for example, an often-female human voice. If we look at other forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and consider online bots, we see intelligence emerging that escapes the servant role. In 2016, online bots were responsible for 51.8% of the Internet, making them the most dominant internet user and meaning that the content we post is watched increasingly by non-human entities. Not only are they an audience, more and more bots contribute content produced by themselves, such as the Twitter bots of Allison Parrish.

The table above originates from a research article on bots fighting each other. From 2001-2010, Wikipedia bots have been involved in “sterile fights”, in which they continuously edit and undo each other’s edits. These fights could sometimes last for years.

Whether these bots have emotions, create meaning, or what an AI society might look like, remains unknown. We can, however, attempt a negotiation and translation that does not measure against a human scale, or force Human Intelligence on any AI. If we want to engage in a conversation with other forms of intelligence, we should consider dialogues even if they do not meet up to our standard. We can already see fragments of bots and AIs starting to perform by and for themselves, with or without human-produced content – what this will become remains to be seen.