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Digital utopia is fraught with perils

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Digital utopia is fraught with perils

Technology, when it acts as an enabler, can work for the larger social good. But when it displaces our cognitive faculties and makes us tech-dependent addicts, the future looks terrifying and disturbing

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest fad these days. Apparently, it is so passé now to make your own phone calls, for instance, to book an appointment to a salon. It is another matter that in India, we seldom require prior appointments to visit our street side hair salon or for that matter practically for any other facilities. We just show up and wait for our turn to come. It may not be such a big deal for many of us.

But for those who want to squeeze the last droplet of productivity from their veins and cannot seem to raise their heads above from the crushing work schedule, fret not, for the AI supported Virtual Assistants have come to their rescue. If the recent announcement by Google is anything to go by, the Google Assistant can fix appointments for you and smarten up your life without ‘you’ wasting time on such mundane chores. Basically, saving you ‘tons’ of time, energy and effort.

The voice technology demo unveiled last week by the company was nothing less than startling. It was almost real. You could hardly guess which was an automated voice and which was a human voice. With exact pauses, correct and natural expression and speech nuances, the technology seems to have obliterated the lines between a human and robotic voice.  The potential impact of the voice technology for the end user, consumer and business is going to be profound in the coming days.

If you look at the search function on the internet, the landscape is gradually shifting. Text-based queries are paving way for voice-driven commands. It is set to be the next wave of revolution on how we engage, socialise, consume information and organise our lives on the internet. All this is being enabled by a blend of AI, machine learning and natural language skills.

Voice, mobile and search functions are converging. Most of the queries that we search are increasingly local in nature. The mobile rich environment that we live in is making it easier for users to seek hyperlocal queries with richer data points and geolocation details. Now, with the advent of the voice-powered assistant and search, it is going to dramatically alter the context for all of us.

Similarly, business relying on the web will have to stress on optimising the focus to a more voice-based search to meet the demands of the consumer in the future.

Already the user experience with the voice has reached satisfactory and convincing levels. It is set to improve further with the emerging AI technology. As voice-driven technology on the internet gradually becomes mainstream, the semantics of human conversation will matter in a great way and it will decide on how business succeeds on the internet. The voice search future has arrived.

All major technology companies are investing in virtual assistants. Google calls it Google Assistant, Apple has Siri, Amazon terms it Alexa, Microsoft has Cortana. All this technology is to touch the consumers’ everyday lives starting from managing schedules to navigate while one is driving or help you choose your favorite song when at home, and also TV shows or films to be played on the web. All this, apparently with a mission to make information more useful, accessible and beneficial.

Only time will tell how voice tehnology can ad-lib and master the multitude of languages, its grammar and syntax to make it sensible to the end user. Recall the robotic gibberish text that comes out of the web when you are trying to translate from one language to another.

The privacy concerns with these emerging technologies have not abated and are only multiplying with each passing day. The recent Facebook data leaks incident give consumers some genuine cause to worry about such inconspicuous and omnipresent technology where the devices are always processing some personal data and sending them back to the servers.

In a scenario, where heavy automation is now creeping into our personal spaces — what will be the turn of the events when ‘self-aware’ digital assistants trigger a call and make diligent appointments and the consequences and confusion for the business, in case the ‘person’ changes plans? Ethically, should the digital assistant not declare itself as a conversing software aide on behalf of the person and let the person at the other end know that the conversation is tentative in nature?

Most worrying is the fear that in an Internet of Things (IOT) driven environment and hyper-connected world, the devices are ‘snooping’ on our conversations. What all information will these devices collect and who has access to this information? How does one even check that? The irony is that it seems to promote monitoring than safe guarding privacy.

Picture this, what if these technologies are used politically or financially to spread false information, wire money transfer or purchase stuff online and deceive people into making transaction? What happens to the larger consumer interests?

Computers can be tricked and it can be deceived by a mere change of algorithm. There are already indications that rogue elements can infiltrate homes by transmitting inaudible messages below the threshold of normal awareness. What happens when these devices get activated by picking up stimuli and voice commands that were not given by you? Also, the children can be equally vulnerable to these devices.

Well, before the digital utopia arrives, there seems to be lot of ditches on the way that need to be navigated. In technology’s relentless march, one must be careful to adopt it only after all the dots are sensibly connected. Technology, when it acts as an enabler, can work for the larger social good. But when it displaces our cognitive faculties and makes us tech-dependent addicts, the future looks terrifying and disturbing.

The crucial question is who shapes our choices and determine how we regulate our lives? The coders and the creators of the technology? It is not as if private enterprises are devoid of any self-interest in these inventions. You will need to be discerning and pursue your own alternatives. The digital utopia is fraught with perils.

(The writer is a communications and management professional with cross-sectoral experience)




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