Just like HAL, your voice assistant isn’t working for you even if it feels like it is

Space suits from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey on display at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in LA.
Matthew J. Cotter, Uningdomited K, CC BY-NC-SA

Of all the fictional virtual assistants we know from pop culture, few stand up to the original and perhaps most famous: the HAL 9000 from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We should probably be thankful for that. After all, Alexa may shut your lights off, but she won’t turn against you and wreak havoc on your life. Or will she?

Amazon Alexa, Samsung Bixby, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, IBM Watson and other virtual assistants are advertised as a cross between your friend, your servant, your helpful companion and sidekick.

HAL presents us something more sinister, but perhaps more realistic. While tech companies push virtual assistants as integral to a better, easier life, 2001: A Space Odyssey asks: at what cost?

The film illustrates the technological ecosystem companies are really competing to own – one where we trade in our privacy for small conveniences.

‘I want to help you’ – HAL

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL is introduced to the crew of a spaceship as one of them. But with cognitive capabilities well beyond those of his human companions, HAL is omnipresent – and embedded in the technology keeping the crew alive.

The crew trust HAL, eschewing privacy for the sake of his aid in controlling the whole ship. It doesn’t occur to them that the people who designed HAL might not have had the crew’s best interests at heart. Or that HAL’s loyalty is to Mission Control and, beyond that, his programming.

Likewise, although it is clear that the function of modern virtual assistants are driven by profit, it isn’t obvious to the average consumer exactly how their presence is being monetised. Consumers may be more educated about their online privacy these days, yet the consequences of the virtual world intruding into the physical hasn’t properly permeated public consciousness.

Allowing a machine to record you 24/7 in exchange for convenience is a high price to pay. It might not seem that way because virtual assistants wear the halo of trust earned by the other services they are known for – Google’s search is unparalleled and Amazon’s retail experience leads the global marketplace.

Like HAL, these machines process incredible amounts of data. So much so, that even their creators are not quite sure of their capabilities, or how they will reach their goal. The commercial benefit of virtual assistants lies in their ability to predict your behaviour through what they capture, and create opportunities for transactions. Mining big data for predictive analytics is all the rage in the business world.

So, while companies are marketing virtual assistants as your “assistant”, they are in fact your “analyst”.

‘I could see your lips move’ – HAL

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the crew clearly never read the HAL “Quick Start Guide”. They didn’t know he could lie, and they were also unaware he could read lips. When the crew steps out of the ship to have a moment of privacy, HAL’s cameras could still see them and got the gist of their not-so-private conversation. Then push came to shove… and well, eventually the crew ended up getting the shove.

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