A new kind of interface has surfaced over the past five years – artificial intelligence (AI) based ‘personal assistants’.
Apple Siri started the ball rolling, swiftly followed by Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and half a dozen others. But it now has a new apogee, a new sector defining moment, a revolution dressed up as evolution. The only thing more alarming than its intrusive, opaque, and society-altering capabilities is the way in which tech pundits have ladled out the accolades, pundits whose worldview appears as limited as a magpie’s regard for shiny things.
Google Now is now Google Assistant, and it comes integrated into Google’s first full-on (i.e. not just a reference design) mobile phone – the Pixel.
Google’s CEO announced Google Assistant earlier this month in a blog post titled:
… in the next 10 years, we will shift to a world that is AI-first, a world where computing becomes universally available … This is why we built the Google Assistant, which allows you to have a natural conversation between you and Google.
Our name for this new category of interface is Surveillance Interface (SI), and I can explain why by teasing apart the title of that blog post and that one paragraph.
Here’s the definition in my dictionary of personal:
belonging to or affecting a particular person rather than anyone else; of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions
“A personal Google.”
But Google feels the need to append “just for you.”
Ah, now there’s a question. You see, if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product [ref]. “A personal Google” actually conveys that it’s about your person for Google because the company is in the business of surveillance capitalism. Appending “just for you” almost seems a clumsy way to hide the intent.
Now to Google’s claim to effect “a natural conversation between you and Google”.
I’m searching for an adjective to describe this claim, but in polite company let me stick to disingenuous.
How natural is it for your interlocutor to be logging every single interaction ever, forever? How natural is it for them to know every place you’ve been and your purpose for going there? Does your everyday natural experience of conversation entail the other party recording every website you visit, every video you watch, every purchase you make, every message you send? Do you find it natural to have all this subject to constant, real-time, systematic analysis to forecast what you’ll do in the future so it can be sold as actionable ‘consumer insight’?
Should you naturally ask in conversation “why do you say that?”, are you naturally told “can’t say”?
Is it natural conversation for your personal power to be partially absorbed by a corporate you’ve never met applying software you don’t understand to nudge your actions in ways you don’t appreciate?
For the avoidance of any doubt that might remain, Google Assistant is NOT a natural conversation. Google Assistant is a most unnatural conversation involving a level of surveillance even the most imaginative dystopian writers of the 20th Century couldn’t quite muster.
Google is an awesome company, with awesome people, that creates awesome technology, but it must reconsider the way such technology is manifest in our lives and in our societies if they don’t want to create a reality distinctly at odds with what I understood the founding values of the company to be.
Here’s Natasha Lomas at Techcrunch telling it how it is:
So the actual price for building a ‘personal Google for everyone, everywhere’ would in fact be zero privacy for everyone, everywhere.
And William Turton doesn’t pull any punches in his Gizmodo post:
The Human Interface
Part of our attempt to explain the Human Interface (HI) is to compare and contrast it to the User Interface (UI), quite simply because it’s easier to imagine things in relative rather than absolute terms. Here then is how Surveillance Interface weighs in on our comparison table:
|User Interface (UI)||Surveillance Interface (SI)||Human Interface (HI)|
|50 year old construct fit for 20th Century computing||for the pervasive digital environment of the 21st Century||for the pervasive digital environment of the 21st Century|
|up close to the machine||up close to the service provider||up close to the individual|
|designed for an ‘average’ user||designed to surveil the individual uniquely||assembled uniquely for the individual|
|the organization’s||the service provider’s||the individual’s|
|the user must fit to the machine||fitted to the individual||fits to the individual|
|provides interactive information||requires knowledge building by the service provider||enables knowledge building by the individual|
|no AI||intelligence (AI) is outsourced||intelligence (AI) is supplied|
|degrees of awkwardness||concealed, blackbox, so ‘disappears’||transparent, ideal, so ‘disappears’|
|largely static design||dynamic, in the moment||dynamic, in the moment|
|‘the interface is the product’||you are the product||the product is the product|
|decentralized||centralizing, eroding the Web We Want||decentralizing, supporting the Web We Want|