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Who’s Afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

AI will make our devices obsolete. What does that mean for human relationships to technology?

The Washington Post/Getty

Would it be an exaggeration to say we caress our smartphones? Our connection to them is emotional: We paw at them idly and endlessly. There are times when your phone can be your best friend.

That might soon change. Google and Microsoft are betting big on artificially intelligent helpers—not like Apple’s Siri, which is stuck only on its products, but a device-agnostic digital personality that follows you wherever you go. As Google’s founders put it in their annual letter: “[O]ver time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.” The smartphone could soon become obsolete. Dematerialized.

Right now, we use phones because they’re the fastest way to get all of our stuff: messages, contacts, photos, music, documents, and the like. For all the talk of the cloud, there’s still a very real need for a device to access online life. The tech giants think we should be more sci-fi—as with Samantha, the artificial intelligence from the movie Her. Google and Microsoft and newcomers like Viv Labs (the original creators of Apple’s Siri) each want to be the first to create an affordable, ethereal presence with persistent access to both the Web and personal data. These AIs should be able to predict what you need, and then carry out the tasks themselves. If these tech companies get what they hope for, AIs will be the new site of digital life.

That desire is driven by deeply material concerns: We’re nearly a decade into the smartphone era and Apple now commands 94 percent of mobile profits. Along with Google, it dominates the market. Facebook, on the other hand, is the behemoth in advertising and media. AI is an attempt to break these sorts of strangleholds; Microsoft could challenge Apple’s and Google’s mobile dominance, while Google might win Apple’s enormous profits. It’s also the reason noted Apple watcher Marco Arment recently warned that the company is on the way to becoming the next Blackberry. While Apple has made enormous profits from the iPhone, it has let others get a head start on artificial intelligence. Siri, their digital assistant, lags behind and is tied to Apple’s hardware. Microsoft’s Cortana, on the other hand, works across its own products, any smartphone, and soon, its Xbox console. If the smartphone does become obsolete, it will be because companies are looking to disrupt business models that don’t work for them.

Aside from the potential profit, the desire to have a digital personality become the new smartphone is tied to two things: Everyone in the race wants consumers to cultivate a personal relationship with their AI. Each company plans to use that to mine data and generate new revenue. Consider the Amazon Echo, a consumer product that approximates an ambient intelligence and might be a model for how the next generation of AI develops. The cylindrical gadget, which is always listening for voice commands, can play your music, add things to a grocery list, look up facts, call an Uber, control your lights—and because developers can create apps for it, its feature list is expanding. Users often report the device is easily incorporated into everyday life, sort of like a digital pet. It quickly becomes part of the family. Amazon, naturally, wants to stitch itself into the fabric of your life. But the Echo is limited by the fact that it can’t exist everywhere. Now imagine that kind of utility in all your gadgets—on your desktop, on your watch, in your car, and of course on your phone. The object becomes mostly unimportant, an afterthought.

But if the privacy concerns are obvious—when you have an AI, all your data will live in the cloud—the implications of having a persistent digital assistant are less clear. While Amazon’s Echo only listens for a short time after hearing a “wake word” and then stops, the issue is more that it is listening at all, always insinuating its way into routines and thinking. And there’s no question that AI designers will do what Apple does with its products, and attempt to induce an emotional connection to its devices. Siri and Cortana already tell jokes and contain endearing Easter eggs. It becomes easier to forget that a company is collecting data on you when it’s making you laugh.

It’s true there’s a sense of freedom and futuristic wonder that comes along with not being tethered to a single device—that any “smart” thing can link you to the outside world and the people you know. But the digital age has brought with it a peculiar devil’s bargain. The more untethered you are in some ways, the more chained you become in others. Just as the laptop and then the smartphone freed us from the tyranny of working in place, so too did they obligate us to work wherever we are. We welcomed these transitions partly because of the beauty of the objects themselves, but mostly for their functionality. Smartphones have made life easier.

Which begs the question: What happens to life when AI is everywhere? It promises to dissolve into the background, like the best technology does, automating tasks and maybe telling us a quip or two along the way. But at least now you can throw your phone into a lake. AI won’t offer that kind of escape; it will just be waiting for you when you get home.

Science fiction is rife with stories of artificial intelligence run amok. But in reality the image of an oppressive computer gets AI wrong. As the smartphone revolution (and its attendant costs) shows: We invite technology into our lives and homes and then figure out the consequences later. But when our link to the outside world isn’t some pretty device we can caress, it’ll be much harder to ask it to leave.