Do you need an executive assistant who can stay out of sight and always be ready to complete your bidding at your command?
That’s what Amazon is banking on when it announced its new Alexa for Business service at its annual Web Services conference last week. Using the location of your device and the company information you’re willing to feed it, Alexa, the voice-controlled virtual assistant in Amazon Echo devices, can now book you a conference room, call the help desk, manage your work calendar, and order new printer paper.
In the promotional video for its new service, Amazon imagines a world where companies manage thousands of employees’ shared Echo devices and employees go about their days speaking their requests out loud. You can say, “Alexa, pull up last quarter’s sales report,” and that report appears seamlessly on a screen without the presenter needing to click a mouse.
At its best, integrating artificial voice intelligence into your company will buy you back time you wasted on mundane tasks like finding an empty meeting room. In its testimonial about the service, office-sharing company WeWork said that having an Alexa to dim lights and set the temperature at the office simplified the everyday hassles of the workplace. “I think that the more natural our interfaces become — the more they disappear — the better,” WeWork Head of Product Research Josh Emig told the Wall Street Journal.
Alexa needs to eavesdrop to be the best assistant
But the drawback to making technology work assistants seem natural is that we forget who we’re talking to — if we treat it as a co-worker with a human name, we forget that it’s actually owned by one of the world’s largest corporations that benefits from receiving as much personal data as it can get on us to influence our choices.
In order for Alexa to work, it needs to be listening to what you say — and that can be embarrassing or career-ending talk. Although Amazon promises to delete specific voice recordings, you may naturally forget to censor yourself when you treat it as just another assistant.
By making its personal Alexa device a professional one, Amazon is signaling that it wants its products to take over your workplace as much as it already has your home. If Amazon succeeds in making Alexa go mainstream at work, there will be a future where employees have Alexas making thousands of choices on their behalf. “Have my A.I. email your A.I.” The real privacy and ethical questions will become making sure that these selected choices are the right ones.