Millions of people in the US have welcomed Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, into their homes since 2014. With over 20 million Amazon Echos sold in 2017, consumers are embracing big tech’s genie in a bottle at an astonishing speed. A 2017 report by Forrester Data predicts that 20% of US households will have a smart speaker by 2022, up from 4% of households in 2017.
But with the increased rate of adoption come many unsettling anecdotes about Alexa’s presence. Considering the instances of random, unsolicited laughing or private conversations being sent to random phone contacts, it is reasonable to question the implicit trust we place in our digital assistants and the tech companies that host their “brains.”
How Much Do We Trust Digital Assistants?
To get a sense of what information and services people trust digital assistants to manage, we conducted a survey asking 1,000 US residents a variety of questions about artificial intelligence. While many of the answers weren’t too surprising—73% of people polled would, unsurprisingly, not want an algorithm to predict their health outcomes, for example—other responses show that our views on the integration of AI into our daily lives are shifting.
Our views on the integration of AI into our daily lives are shifting. But are those shifts positive or negative?
While only about 4% of US households currently own an Alexa-enabled device, 33% of our respondents reported owning and using Alexa. Meaning: A third of the people we polled are familiar with Alexa’s abilities and potential downfalls—so while the sample is slightly skewed compared to the general public, it gives us better insight into how Alexa is viewed by the people who use AI already. Our survey respondents are a good representation of the subset of US residents who drive technological trends and behaviors.
As we dug into the responses, we found some especially interesting results regarding the trend of online therapy: 37% of people polled reported they would use Alexa for online therapy. Before the saturation of smartphones, many people might have balked at the thought of online therapy—but with dozens of mental health apps and online therapy services now available at your fingertips, speaking to your therapist remotely is becoming more normalized and accessible.
Given the recent surge in the accessibility of digital mental health services, it is hardly surprising that people would use Alexa—just like they do smartphones—to access the therapy services they need, when they need it.
While we hate to disagree with so many of our pollees, we do think that they may have overlooked a considerable potential drawback to online therapy via Alexa: the potential for security and privacy violations by Amazon. Many people don’t realize that Alexa and Google Home record what you say before you “wake” your assistant. You do have the ability manually delete these conversations, but it is unclear what happens to those queries before and after you delete them. Could they be used with ill intentions?
It may seem paranoid to worry about what Amazon can learn and share about you via Alexa, especially during a therapy session, but after Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook exposed troves of user data to a third party—it really isn’t. This may explain why a strong majority of people we polled said they would not use Alexa to facilitate their next therapy session.
A Surveillance Double Standard
Even as people protest how their data is being harvested and used by big tech companies, we still found that 30% of people surveyed would use Alexa to “drop in” on others people’s conversations. The irony isn’t lost on us.
Checking in on the conversations of your children in the other room is one thing (after all, 8% of respondents would trust Alexa to babysit their children), but to drop in on the conversations of other adults without consent is still a violation of privacy. Perhaps this double standard is excused in the minds of the pollsters because the scale of the violation seems negligible compared to any snooping done by mega-corporations or the government.
We don’t necessarily anticipate that the number of people who trust Alexa to babysit will rise exponentially, but we fear the potential ramifications of people feeling entitled to drop in on others’ conversations. Has AI changed the way we view interpersonal privacy? As more and more people bring smart speakers and digital assistants into their homes, will our respect for privacy decrease or become more vigilant?
Move Over Fido—There’s a New Guard Dog in Town
While respondents seem wary to trust Alexa with interpersonal and interactive tasks like babysitting or therapy, 46% said they would trust Alexa with their home security. When 28% of US households already have a smart home device, and a majority of homeowners say that their smart home products give them greater peace of mind, is it any wonder that almost half of our respondents would trust Alexa to manage their home security systems?
Our survey results demonstrate the current borders of trust many of us have drawn around AI. We are more comfortable with AI managing our home security than we are with AI managing our emotions or children—at least for now. It will be interesting to see how these statistics shift as AI grows more emotionally intelligent and more human—and how these shift in perception will affect business outcomes in the future.
Regardless of these concerns, Alexa has become part of the family for many households. Alexa’s contributions to the happiness of the home is enough for many to justify any bugs she may bring with her.
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As AI becomes more integrated into our lives and the public’s perception of AI continues to shift, business offerings and marketing strategies need to be prepared to shift with them. Clearlink’s Data Science team is dedicated to tracking how advances in technology shift consumer expectations and helping brands pivot to meet those expectations. Contact us to learn more about how intelligent data science can boost your business outcomes.