Yet for all the efficiencies these do engines may provide, they may also carry a significant risk. Evan Selinger, a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, argues that less friction in our lives may “render us more vulnerable to being automatic,” and eliminate crucial opportunities for moral deliberation. “The digital servant becomes the digital overlord, and we don’t even recognize it.”
They might also make us an easy target for an algorithm that knows more about our bad habits and indulgences than we do, and isn't above exploiting them. The stream of suggestions from virtual assistants, especially if advertisers have a say, could make us more susceptible to overeating and over-spending. A spouse knows not to encourage you to stop by the steakhouse given your heart condition. But would Siri? Or Google Now if Google got a big ad buy from the steakhouse? Would Siri nag you into becoming your best self or would it coddle and humor you into a state of blissful complacency?
By freeing us of the irritants and drudgeries of life that keep us from pursuing our more serious interests, the promise of virtual assistants offers a release into an inconceivably higher state of being. As the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed, “Progress is measured by what you no longer have to think about.”
Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Forbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.
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