Our popular culture carries with it themes, pseudo-science, and technical fears. Woe to any company whose product missteps into that quagmire.
Every day, by virtue of modern communication, social media and the web, our culture forms a kind of group state-of-mind. Books, TV, movies, both older and those recent, the products we use, and the most persuasive voices in our culture create a flow in time, like a stream. Occasionally, pebbles are thrown into the stream, and the ripples create a minor, short-lived disturbance.
Amazon just threw a boulder into the stream.
I’m referring to the kerfuffle over the Alexa Laugh. See, for example, “Alexa is Laughing at You and it’s Creepy AF.” This group societal event had people freaked out. Had their Echo been hacked? Was Amazon accidentally exposing its contempt for customers? Was there a hidden element in Alexa’s artificial intelligence that had come to light in a creepy, unexpected way? Had a ghost taken control of the machine?
Actually, none of the above.
Amazon has explained that the problem arose from a false positive, a misinterpretation of ambient sounds that triggered a request for a laugh. The problem has been fixed. For now.
Foreseeing The Unforeseeable
In the pitched battle by the tech giants to become the favored intelligent speaker and personal voice assistant, there is precious little time for them to conduct exhaustive testing. We’re all beta test guinea pigs.
The problem that arises is that a major snafu like the Alexa Laugh can explode throughout our social media consciousness and be improperly interpreted against the backdrop of our collective memes. Specters of the pleasant, erudite, but killer Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or every killer robot ever presented in SciFi merge together into a kind of collective, amplified horror story. It feeds on itself and ignites a social media meltdown.
Worse, this kind of event probably had millions of Amazon customers unplugging all their Echo devices. They may be reluctant to plug them back in again, even though the emotional roller coaster has come to a stop. And, guess what? From now on, the Alexa Laugh is now ensconced in our culture as a suspect part of the the personal AI phenomenon.
Every robot from this day forward will, at the slightest provocation or misstep, be accused of secretly abhorring its owner—no matter what kind of affirmation its developer makes.
Inadvertently tech-stumbling in the pop culture mixmaster of memes and emotions is what I call:
Pop Culture Blindsiding
I imagine that this is one of the worst fears of every company that makes, or plans to make, intelligent companions for humans. (Perhaps the worst is that a companion robot injures a pet or child.) I don’t know how a company can protect itself from this kind of snafu except to have a lot of patience combined with a strong set of values. That’s usually inculcated into a project by a single manager with a powerful personal vision.
Large teams who work on projects without this kind of overarching vision, I think, are susceptible to this kind of group neglect of the human basics via extensive testing and controls. The Abilene Paradox probably applies here.
A group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group.
This is generally why we respect Apple so much. Apple, amidst the modern technology battles, continues to demonstrate its devotion to a set of core values that sustain our respect and confidence.
Lessons to be Learned
Companies and developers who race against time to throw intelligent entities into the consumer electronics marketplace are going to increasingly fall prey to “Pop Culture Blindsiding.” The result, if it happens frequently enough, could be a more magnified social rejection of advanced technology (and science), and that won’t be good for any of us.