What’s 100 million strong and can tackle thousands of tasks without losing ground? Alexa. Amazon’s best-selling voice-activated assistant has the potential to eliminate many of the time-consuming tasks that hold us back, both at home and in the office. But she’s far more than a digital toy.
Alexa is one of several digital assistants that use artificial intelligence algorithms to accomplish tasks that were previously impossible for computing devices. And with every passing day, these AI assistants are becoming smarter and more capable.
Alexa comes with an ever-increasing set of skills, and she may one day know enough to steal your job. To outsmart this smart assistant, you need to get to know the history, strengths, and limitations of artificial intelligence—and how to use Alexa to get ahead.
Getting to know Alexa
Officially, Alexa is a voice assistant that’s bundled with Amazon’s smart devices, a full product line of speakers, displays, earbuds, cameras, and appliances that patiently wait to serve your every command. Alexa lives in the cloud, where she listens to your requests and cheerfully processes and provides responses.
Google also introduced a similar product called Google Home, and it’s one of Alexa’s direct competitors. I use Alexa as an example in this article, but you can easily substitute “Hey Google” as you read along.
I originally bought Alexa as a toy and to play music in my kitchen and living room. I play “Question of the Day” and “Jeopardy” with Alexa every day. We have her connected to our television so she can turn it on and off when we want, change the volume, and flip through channels. We have her connected to our Nest thermostat so she can control the temperature of the house when we are not home (or even when we are home), and she can turn the lights on and off at our command.
With each day that passes, Alexa learns more and more skills; as of July 2019, her library of skills surpassed 60,000 items, and that number is growing daily. She is an example of contemporary artificial intelligence, and many people are worried that AI will put them out of a job and render them unemployable, sooner rather than later.
Artificial intelligence: a machine with smarts
Humans and animals have natural intelligence. When a machine mimics cognitive functions such as thinking, problem-solving, learning, and understanding, it’s considered to have artificial intelligence because the machine is making the decisions, not a human behind the machine.
For instance, my Alexa device can understand what I say to her. I don’t have to use a preset phrase to get her to respond. I can say, “What’s the temperature outside?” and she will understand and reply. I can also use a variation of this question, such as “Is it hot outside?” and she will understand that as well.
Prior to today’s artificial intelligence, we had to use very specific phrases to get our computers to perform. The only way I could print a document was to use a preset command (Ctrl+P). I couldn’t use any other sequence if I wanted the document to print. With my Alexa device, there are no set phrases to memorize to ensure her comprehension. She is able to interpret my words and questions.
AI can also think through things, like how to play a game of chess. Remember when IBM’s chess-loving computer, Deep Blue, beat reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997? Today, AI can drive a car, perform military simulations, and more.
Because of this, many people believe that AI is the doomsday we have feared for centuries. In 2013, researchers at Oxford University predicted that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated by 2033. In 2016, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that 9 percent of jobs in 21 OECD countries could be automated. McKinsey & Company, an American management-consulting firm, estimates AI-driven job losses at 5 percent.
These statistics might generate new fears. But artificial intelligence isn’t new.
AI dates back centuries
Depending on your age, your first knowledge of robots and artificial intelligence probably came from science fiction TV shows and movies.
Whether it was through exposure to the sentient computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the mechanical hound from Fahrenheit 451, or even the droids in Star Wars, we have been conditioned to believe that computers, robots, and artificial intelligence would be our future—and lead to our ultimate destruction.
Blaming this notion of destruction on popular culture, however, is unfair. Artificial intelligence started long before robots and humanoids were introduced to us in the movies. Back in 1968, HAL seemed revolutionary, but he wasn’t. The concept of artificial servants and companions dates back to ancient Greek legends of mythical beings such as Cadmus, who is said to have sown dragon teeth that turned into soldiers, and Pygmalion, whose statue of Galatea came to life—two of the first depictions of artificial intelligence.
Automatons, mechanical devices that imitate humans, were found in China’s Liezi, a Daoist text. This text describes an encounter sometime between 1023 and 957 B.C. between King Mu of Zhou and Yan Shi, a mechanical engineer (or “artificer”), who allegedly presented the king with a life-sized, human-shaped mechanical figure.
In medieval literature and works by Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci, there have been stories, drawings, and lore of artificial intelligence in different forms.
Artificial intelligence isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. What we need to do is use AI to our advantage. We need to overcome fear, embrace AI, and get ahead.
Here are some tips:
Get comfortable with AI on a personal level. Invest in smart devices at home, such as Alexa, Google Home, Nest, Ring, smart outlets, and anything that will make living at home more comfortable. When you explore what can be done on a personal level, there is less risk for you professionally. Learn the secrets of your smart device, explain how it works to others, and get comfortable with how it can improve your life. If you are concerned about privacy, investigate your settings, permissions, and make sure you are at ease with the knowledge you have.
Start paying attention to AI in the news, magazines, and books. I keep my eyes and ears open for anything and everything about AI. I don’t need to know it all, but it helps to know what’s coming.
Imagine how many people were surprised in the 1950s when robots were introduced to the factory line. Make your mantra “If I know, I can be prepared.” For instance, if you didn’t know your company was considering automated chatbots for customer service, you might be surprised when they announced mass layoffs—and you might not be able to position yourself in a role that isn’t being automated. Or, while you may not be interested in automated cars (yet!), you might take an interest in automated grocery shopping or electricity conservation. Anything that has to do with your industry, your company, or your profession, you need to know what the future looks like.
Ask questions. You don’t know what you don’t know, so ask questions! Someone might know more than you do; they might know something specific about your company or industry that would be helpful for your future.
To stay ahead of the curve, we need to keep educated, keep aware, and be willing to embrace new technology, even if we aren’t sure how it will benefit us yet. Why not give it a try? There’s no time better than now.