A few months ago, Amazon invited reporters to its Spheres complex in downtown Seattle. It’s an enormous greenhouse doubling as a work space for employees: a climate-controlled, glass-enclosed, self-contained ecosystem made up of 40,000 species of plants from all over the world. Amazon executives opened Seventy new products? The journalists in the room responded with gasps and laughter.
There were new devices like the Echo subwoofer and a tiny gadget to bring Alexa into your car. A smart plug that automatically connects to Wi-Fi and will make any smart appliance respond to your spoken commands. Amazon’s voice-operating system, Alexa, had been upgraded with a ton of new features. At the tail end of the event was something both mundane and marvelous. Situated between the staghorn ferns and tiny begonias was an Alexa-powered microwave oven that will take the fuss out of having to push buttons to pop a bag of popcorn.
From my vantage point, that Alexa-powered microwave was arguably one of the most important announcements Amazon has made in the past few years. It was clear that Amazon was now using artificial intelligence to slowly transform our homes into data generation machines as we, and our daily activities, are continuously mined, refined and productized.
Amazon isn’t the only company seeking to become the operating system for everyday life. Apple and Google also offer smart speakers and are partnering with appliance manufacturers. Apple has opened up its HomeKit requirements to make it easier for manufacturers and developers to incorporate its digital assistant, Siri. Google has spent the past year aggressively pushing its connected home assistant.
Apple and Google also make our phones, store our photos and run our app stores. Apple just announced a new credit card paired with the iPhone. Google is making home alarm systems. Amazon is getting into the health care business. Both Amazon and Google are expanding into the electricity business, too, as they partner with utilities and deploy home energy management services.
What this means is that sometime in the next decade, all the start-ups and hardware manufacturers and the rest of the A.I. ecosystem will converge around just a few systems. All of us will have to accept a new order and pledge our allegiance to one of the few companies that now act as the operating systems for everyday life.
Once your data, gadgets, appliances, cars and services are entangled, you’ll be locked in to Amazon, Google or Apple. As you buy more stuff — mobile phones, connected refrigerators, smart earbuds — you’ll find that not only are your devices not compatible with other systems, you and your family aren’t either.
This will create a de facto system of segregation, the beginnings of which we’re already seeing. One in 10 Americans received an Apple, Google or Amazon smart speaker during the 2018 holiday season, according to a report by NPR and Edison Research. However, those speakers, and all the peripherals sold with them, can’t be easily used across different operating systems.
Users of iPhones have enhanced functionality when using an Apple HomePod, while
All those devices give us access to bundled entertainment packages and shopping platforms, which
What does that designation imply for the coming years?
Apple’s products tend to be the priciest, but they also come with the fewest glitches, viruses and bugs. As a result, they are attractive to people with little technical knowledge and a lot of disposable income. Apple’s future smart glasses, smart toilets and custom refrigerators might carry on the company’s long tradition of expensive devices anyone can use right out of the box. The families, wherever they call home, will be living a life optimized by a handful of developers in Cupertino.
Google’s current egalitarian approach to tech could shift to a future tiered system of access and permissions. Families who can afford the upgrade fees and have enough tech savvy could manually unlock their systems and connect to a greater variety of devices, such as coffee makers, 3-D printers and outdoor irrigation systems. But a lower-income tier might offer families access in exchange for advertising. Those families would have a small selection of devices and appliances available, and they would come with restrictions and limited data protections.
Since 2017, Amazon has partnered with Lennar, the largest residential construction company in the United States, to install Alexa in its houses, and there are Amazon homes all over the country: in Sarasota, Fla., in Bucks County, Pa., in Howard County, Md., and in Fresno, Calif. Even in the quiet, blue-collar neighborhood where I grew up in Northwest Indiana, there is now a cluster of Amazon homes that come with smart speakers, door locks and e-keys, video doorbells and thermostats.
Amazon homes come with built-in neighborhood surveillance: Families type in the name of their community to see security camera footage from their neighbors. So it is conceivable that Amazon might one day build smart homes full of its own appliances — not just microwaves — that connect to the Amazon platform.
By choosing Google, Apple or Amazon today, you are also aligning your family values with the values of one of the big tech giants. And soon, you may have to choose — making just one of these companies a custodian of all your family’s data. The unintended consequence of this kind of home automation could be a digital caste system that’s much more daunting than the prospect of making microwave popcorn the old-fashioned way.
Amy Webb is the author of “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.”
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