We’ve failed to notice that our so-called digital servants have got the upper hand

Members of the IPA's Brand Technology Group provide an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

There is a superb Star Wars fan theory which claims R2-D2 is essentially a villainous troll, hell-bent on ruining his human master’s life.

The evidence is compelling. Throughout the original trilogy, the tin-pot terror knows all about Luke’s past but decides not to tell him. This results in Skywalker getting off with his sister and killing his father, as the souped-up Dusty Bin smirks silently on the sidelines.

It is essentially a cautionary tale about our trust in artificial intelligence – and back in our galaxy, are we already allowing machines to use our own lifestyle data to influence us? Perhaps even to manipulate us?

Should we be thinking much harder before inviting the real-world smart droids – Google Home and Amazon Echo – into our lives?

The take-up of the hardware has been impressive. According to Morgan Stanley’s conservative estimates, 11m Amazon Echo devices were sold by the beginning of December last year, 300,000 of which were in the UK. And they aren’t just there to amuse the kids. The use of speech recognition software is accelerating at a staggering pace, with voice searches estimated to increase to 50% by 2020.

As we humanise our browsing experience via these sometimes sassy, soft-spoken fembots, we reduce our domestic lives to a bundle of cloud-based data and retargeting opportunities. At the same time, the last vestige of our personal lives being personal disappears. As serial entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban declared at this year’s SXSW: “The privacy issue is over. You lost.”

Indeed, throughout that whole conference, the prevailing theme was less “the robots are coming” and more “they’ve moved in to your gaff and are rifling through your browsing history”.

We have essentially hardwired our homes to the internet and we think it’s bloody marvellous without understanding the implication of this big fat data pipe. You can shut your front door for some privacy but Amazon and Google can still see inside. Sleep well, everyone.

Strangely, Cuban’s claim was met with a collective shoulder-shrug versus gasps of horror. And only three years since Edward Snowden’s incendiary appearance in Austin.

So, the R2-D2 analogy isn’t as absurd as you’d think. Most of our current technological advances are essentially based on 20th century sci-fi movies.

And in our nerd-like awe at finally owning Knight Rider-style talking watches, we aren’t considering how this technology affects our lives in the long term. We just want the latest and greatest, 'cos it’s the future. But now!

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos told the Washington Post ‘Transformers’ conference last year that Alexa was simply his geek fantasy made real.

“Our vision was that, in the long term, it would become like the Star Trek computer,” he enthused.

In our clamour to humanise our technology and install talking robot butlers, there is a danger our lives become incidental to our all-consuming digital experience.

The value exchange is firmly out of sync between what we are expected to proffer versus the protections we get back. Of course, if something is free, then we should expect that we are the product.

But last time I checked, Amazon Echo and Google Home cost punters £130-plus for the privilege of handing over even more access to our lives.

We’re so busy building ‘relationships’ with our electric lady-boxes, we’ve failed to notice that these so-called digital servants have got the upper hand.

A murder case in Arkansas recently exposed that companies like Amazon keep recordings of people’s conversations – and this server-stored audio could later be subject to legal investigations.

Despite needing a wake word to fire a search query, it seems those bots are never off duty. And nor should we be.

R2-D2’s got a lot to answer for.

Kevin Brown is digital director and partner at Brothers and Sisters and a member of the IPA’s Brand Tech Group which provides an industry view on the impact of technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

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