The smart homes that might be our future have a downside

If these robotic systems are controlled by despotic governments, we’ll be in trouble.

Last autumn, Amazon formed a partnership with Zego, a software firm that specializes in smart homes and apartments. Is that a good thing?

We usually weigh corporate partnerships on their investment value and for their impact on competition and consumers. It could be, though, that it is time to bring good and evil into the evaluation process.

The Amazon-Zego partnership is not a traditional good vs. evil situation as in the classic Satan vs. Saint conflicts, but it has its potential downside as well as an upside.

It gets complicated because innovations and inventions can sometimes be a mix of good and bad. And it is often the case that the good side is visible immediately while the bad side takes time to reveal itself.

Robots are one example of an innovation whose bad side will take time to become clearly visible. We can logically anticipate some problems, though. The word “robot” was first introduced to the public in a 1920 Czech stage play. In the context of the play, it referred to a device to accomplish mundane, repetitive tasks – what an accountant we had on our team years ago referred to as “donkey work.”

Little attention has been paid to robots’ linguistic roots in serfdom, and robots today are generally viewed as taking over tasks that we humans can do but would either prefer not to do or become bored with and therefore make mistakes.

Robots have already done good work, not only in manufacturing and warehousing but also with fire and rescue teams as well as bomb squads.

Over time, though, in tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills, our abilities decay and wither away if they are not used and left to the robots. At that point the robot is doing things we can no longer do. We become dependent on the robot and inadequate in the event of a malfunction. This atrophy of skills has become a concern as airline cockpits become more automated and robotic. And that concern, now years old, has become an issue in the discussions following the recent crashes of Malaysian Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max airliners.

What is involved in the Amazon-Zego partnership are installations of Amazon’s robot, Alexa, in apartments and new homes as they are built, in order to provide better tenant management. Zego will add the software and systems design to create the interface between Alexa and other elements of a smart dwelling.

Alexa is an old-school robot, in one sense. She responds to voice commands in conversational context like “Robby The Robot” in the Sci-Fi Shakespeare-inspired movie “Forbidden Planet,” made 63 years ago. In her present configuration as an app, though, she lacks mobility and is usually anchored to a speaker or smartphone.

Thanks to her artificial intelligence, Alexa is quite capable of understanding what people are saying and what they want. This is a considerably more satisfying experience for humans than incanting “representative … representative … representative” to a telephone-answering robot.

In the apartment installations, these capabilities will be used, in concert with data from other devices, to control the temperature, order food or other things, pay bills — including the rent — and request any required maintenance or complain about the noise in the apartment above.

Alexa, of course, provides a gateway to the Amazon retail goods and services network. And Zego will use that same customer information to provide better tenant and homeowner services as well as cut costs.

The Amazon-Zego system is already installed in thousands of apartments in the United States and Amazon is also marketing a similarly structured system for hotels. At this point or soon, then, we should start hearing about any downsides for that might exist in the robotic systems.

Potential downsides abound in the placement of robots in our homes, and the loss of privacy and decline of skills are just the beginning of an extensive list. Consumers thus far, though, have not seemed to be concerned about actual or potential downsides and enjoy the convenience.

A lot depends on who controls the robots’ education system. If it is a profit-seeking private enterprise, its path and capabilities are subject to public, consumer constraints. If these robotic systems were controlled by a majority political party under socialism, though, it is easy to imagine a level of control that even Big Brother never dreamed of.

Imagine that Dave, a thirsty worker returns home and puts his feet up, anticipating a cool one and a few innings of the ball game. And imagine his reaction to his command when Alexa-9000 replies “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I think you know why, Dave.”

Dave’s reaction to this might be our salvation, or it might be too late. It could go either way.

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