The latest innovations in automation and AI are surrounded by controversy. Thanks to films such as the Terminator, we have been painted a picture of what happens when AI goes stupendously wrong. This fear does little to assuage the distrust of automated processes and machine learning, but what are the benefits?
Enter the digital assistant. Though this technology is a long way off doing mouth to mouth or hoovering my living room, it does provide many benefits. It’s now possible to automate process using digital assistants such as Google Home or Amazon Echo. For example, you can use voice commands to control smart devices like lights, thermostats and switches from home automation systems, manage everyday tasks like shopping lists and even play music. Furthermore, these digital assistants aren't just automating processes but also make use of machine learning, meaning that they process vast amounts of data to enable them to recognise patterns and get better at what they do.
However, digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo do something that no other machine learning device does; they’re a permanent addition in your home. This means it’s totally unique and has the potential to do a whole lot more than organise my playlist.
Here are three benefits these devices could add to our lives without the fear of mass destruction.
Early warning system
Digital assistants could be the best, most effective early warning systems for natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornados and flooding. Being prepared is the most important thing when it comes to natural disasters, as it can help to prevent loss of life and reduces the economic and material impact. Since 2008 the USGC Earthquake Hazards Program has been supporting the research and development of earthquake early warning systems in partnership with Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley, among others. Part of this research has led to ShakeAlert, which is an early warning system for the west coast of the United States, where earthquakes are frequent. The system is still in the beta stage but when it is rolled out to the general public, it will be able to send alerts to users’ phones up to 10 seconds before an earthquake hits. This is enough time for people to find shelter, meaning this technology will save countless lives.
Considering the popularity and usefulness of digital assistants, how long will it be until this technology is adopted by organisations? It may be that this technology is packaged up within the intelligent workplace structure but ultimately, the abilities of a Digital Assistant would exist, meaning that offices, shopping centres and schools could be provided with easy-to-implement early warning systems, saving lives.
They’re always listening
Digital assistants are a privacy minefield. Marketed as man’s best friend, all ears, ready to respond to your every command, they are essentially a listening device. Though companies such as Amazon argue that their digital assistants only record when the trigger word is spoken, how long will it be until this can be circumnavigated by those in the know? Let's consider the scene from the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, in which during a meeting with journalists Laura Pointras and Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden disconnects a landline phone because they can be used as listening devices. Now picture how easy it would be to tap something that is designed to listen and record en masse. Although there are many bugs to iron out, this ability to listen could be used to the homeowner's advantage.
An example of this is when Arkansas prosecutors recently demanded information from a murder suspect’s Echo. Though Amazon are pushing back against this demand, this presents the possibility for digital assistant owners to be able to present recorded information in cases such as domestic abuse, burglary, assault or murder cases – in fact, any legal battle in which a digital assistant is situated within the home. Although using evidence against the owner may be difficult, presenting evidence against the offender may be a lot easier; after all, the user would be requesting recordings of their own voice within their own home. Thus, digital assistants present a huge benefit to the justice system.
Machine learning is currently being used by medical professionals to aid research and diagnosis. Technology such as this has the ability to improve our everyday existence and can even help save lives. IBM’s Watson is an example of AI that's being used to help doctors diagnose patients and help in the development of medical research. As it becomes smarter and faster, this machine will not only take the place of humans but also save a lot of lives. This is just one example of how machine learning is being used in this sector, but there are a multitude of other uses.
It would be easy for digital assistants to integrate with apps and online pharmacies that help users to diagnose their medical ailments. One example of this is Babylon Health, a ‘doctor and symptom checker’. When using this app you can choose to check a symptom; it will then ask you a series of questions and may suggest that you book a consultation. These can then be booked through the app and subsequently conducted over the phone or through video call where you would speak to a practicing doctor. The research conducted with IBM’s Watson could help to move this further, asking specific questions to help diagnose your ailments. By integrating this with digital assistants, it would be like having your own doctor in your own home.
Digital assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo are in the unique position to be proactive when it comes to diagnosing health issues, especially if they can link to all of your other devices such as Fitbits, Apple Watches and smartphones. For example, if digital assistants are always listening, what’s to stop them collating data on how many times you say “I have a headache”, or monitor how many times you shop for pain relief or sleeping pills? It may even know if you are having trouble sleeping – after all, there are already apps that can do this. And if it can do all of this, what’s to stop it from spotting the early signs of a brain tumour?
These are just three examples of how automation and machine learning from digital assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo can vastly improve our lives but there are millions of ways that this tech can be beneficial. These benefits are not just for us but aspects such as the environment as well. Consider how Google Home and Amazon Echo can monitor and change your thermostats to be the most efficient they can be. Yes, that helps us to spend less on our energy bills but also helps everyone to use less energy, and cumulatively, this could have a massive impact on the environment. So even though there is a rabbit hole of problems and issues that could arise from using this tech, there are also a multitude of benefits; we just have to figure out if it's worth it.
Emma Russell is digital marketing executive at digital agency Distinction.