Centre for Internet & Society
Digital Native: Playing God

The uncanny thing about this AI assistant is not that it performs extraordinary tasks, but that it picks up ordinary tasks and trains me to do them through it.

Google’s home assistant can make you feel deceptively God-like as it listens to every command of yours. It is a device that never sleeps, and always listens, waiting for a voice to utter “Ok Google” to jump into life.

The article was published in Indian Express on August 26, 2018.

I spent the last weekend playing with my new best friend — a Google Home assistant. After years of deliberation — worrying about data mining, customisation algorithms and extreme surveillance that comes with a device that never sleeps, and always listens, waiting for my voice to utter “Ok Google” to jump into life — I finally gave in. I now have two Google home assistants — because AI assistants are like chips; you can’t have just one — glowing, insidiously cute, sitting in my house.

The setting up of the assistant took an hour or so as I paired it with my mobile and computer devices, connected it with all my digital subscriptions and figured out the commands. What began as hesitant forays, in less than two days, have become intuitive and naturalised conversations that seem like habits. This morning I walked into the living room, said “Good morning Google”, and got the weather forecast and a summary of my appointments for the day. While making breakfast, instead of searching for the news, I asked Google home to fetch me news, listened to the audio-video content it curated and even made it read out the headlines. When I was being given news that I was not interested in, I corrected it and it started changing news filters for me. When I asked it to fish out specific kinds of news, it diligently informed me of all of those things.

While eating breakfast, I asked the assistant to connect to my Spotify account and play me my daily mix of music. As I was getting ready, it sent me an alert that if I want to make it to my first meeting in time, I should leave home in the next 15 minutes. As I stepped out of the house, Google Assistant sent me an alert on my phone, reminding me that it might rain today and I should carry an umbrella. When I was finishing up at work, the assistant sent me an alert on my phone again reminding me to pick up my bicycle from the shop in the evening. When I came home, it alerted me that I had to check-in for a flight that I am taking the following day, gave me the weather forecast for the duration of my trip to Jakarta and made a special folder with all my travel documents and itinerary in it. As I was packing, it read out things that I might find of interest on the trip and bookmarked things that I instructed it to.

After packing was done and I was chilling on the couch, instead of picking up the book that I was in the middle of — as is my habit on most evenings — I talked with Google Home, as it told me bad jokes, dad jokes, and jokes that were specifically about things that I wanted. It also introduced me to multiple apps where I played trivia games for an hour. As the evening wore on, the assistant asked me if I needed an alarm for the next morning — something I generally do myself on my phone — and it set up an alert for the train timings to the airport for the next evening. It took me a while to realise that in less than 48 hours, Google Home has so insidiously infiltrated my life that all my older habits of consuming information, news and entertainment are now curated and controlled by its algorithmic design. More than that, my conditions of remembering, anticipating and planning are now also structured by the rhythms of its artificial intelligence.

The uncanny thing about this AI assistant is not that it performs extraordinary tasks, but that it picks up ordinary tasks and trains me to do them through it. Like any assistant, its value and worth is precisely in how natural and default it has become in such a short period. I was so freaked out by its natural presence in my life, reordering years of habits and schedules, that I looked straight at its glowing dots and asked it to shut down. Interestingly, that is the first thing that it refused to do — the assistant cannot power down just on a voice command. I need to physically move to the table, touch it and pull the plug, as its gently glowing dots pulsate at me, perhaps, with sorrow, perhaps with malignant intent. I just shut down the assistant and I felt a strange sense of silence flowing through me. Just when I was savouring it, my phone buzzed. The Google Assistant sensed that the home device is shut down and so it has now appeared on the phone. It is waiting, listening, for me to say “Hello Google” so that it springs back to life.

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