Interview

Big data and Amazon's Trojan Horse

By Barak Berkovitz January 25th, 2018

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— We sit down with the head of MIT Media Lab Barak Berkowitz, former CEO of Evi – the creators of the intelligence behind Alexa – to talk about Amazon's competitors and what Alexa means in an economy dominated by the few.

Why is Amazon and not, Apple or Google, for example, dominating the market right now?


Amazon's stock price depends on the idea that Amazon is someday control thirty percent of the world's commerce. There has always been the belief that when it comes to retail, local retail would always overcome online because of the convenience and impulse factors. Thanks to Amazon, there is now a local retailer in your bedroom and in your living room – you can’t get any more local than that. Effectively what Amazon has done is taken a distribution center a thousand miles away and placed a pipeline inside of your living room, ready to talk to you anytime you want. So now you have a sales person from Amazon waiting for your command – how does anyone else compete with that? How can anyone catch up with that amount of data? Alexa is Amazon's Trojan horse.


One other thing: Amazon have taken a strategy that neither Apple nor Google initially undertook which was to broadly and freely license on a mass scale. These licenses are also very cheap and aggressive and allow individuals to do any integration they want to do.


How are companies going to cope with such a runaway economy?


It seems that at some point these companies will have to share their information with the world. Otherwise the economy will become extremely unbalanced. At some point, Amazon is going to have to share their retail information with the world. 


Most of these countries are America-based. If European companies ever hope to compete, they have to accumulate a lot more data than they have today or at least as much as their American and Asian competitors. One of the ways to get there is through sharing: separate companies saying that we're all going to share our data with one another. These companies do not even necessarily have to be small: the telecoms industry for example sits within the internet space and they house an amazing amount of data – the same goes for the banks. This sort of approach is one of the few ways to counter the continued dominance of the few.


How they will share this data safely is not something I can answer, there are many experiments happening right now focused on analyzing data without decrypting it. In other words, decrypting data without ever being able to know who the individual is who it belongs too or the details of the information it holds – but you are still able to train an AI, analyze correlations and reap the benefits of big data.


Why is there such an interest in voice-activated smart devices at the moment?


Because this technology is not only good source of private data but also an incredibly good use of private data. If you think about owning oil in the previous centuries: those who controlled the oil wells controlled the wealth and could control the price of oil – cutting off supplies strategically to destroy another country. Today the people who own data control the world, and every day that data becomes more important and more valuable.


I don't think this data harvesting is malevolent in the sense that those who control it right now are purposely doing so as a means to control the world. But they do see it as a way to beat the competition. If the world is going to be run by AIs – which it is – and nothing is done about the distribution and sharing of data then the world is going to be run by only a select few companies.


Average annual spending at Amazon.com by user type, courtesy of Statista.


This technology also sits in the realm of what Arthur Clarke said: "that the best technology is indistinguishable from magic." And that is clearly where Alexa fits – the iPhone when it first launched fitted into that gap too. These technologies area so natural, easy and subtle, that to use them seems like science fiction. People accept without a thought the values it brings into your life – values that are very innocuous at first but incredibly penetrating over time. 


When it comes to education, how will these voice systems affect this area?


Well, it’s hard to imagine a facet of life where these voice systems will not have an impact. These devices are obviously connected to the internet and so are privy to a vast amount of knowledge – and are immediately able to respond to you.


One educational function I can think of off the top of my head is replaying online lectures throughout every room of your house – many of these devices can be synched at once. I’d also be surprised if there isn’t yet a sort of mindfulness, therapeutic help application that helps instill certain healthy behaviors in those who wish to learn them.


Will voice control systems ever suggest something to a user based on the user’s emotions?


Well, you need to remember the way Alexa works: Alexa understands nothing except for a trigger word she’s listening out for. Without the trigger word, it doesn’t have the permission to send anything to the server.


That’s not to say that it can't be done today. But due to privacy and intrusion reasons, it doesn’t seem like a useful application. If I’m having an argument with my wife, I’m not sure if it’s going to be particularly useful if Alexa starts offering me advice – in fact, I’d probably throw it out of the window.


When it comes to emotions and physiological human outputs, you're going to see much more of what we already see happening in the wearable's market. Your watch can already read a lot of your emotions – your heartbeats, their rhythm etc. – and even your mindset based on your movements. You're going to see the wearable space doing this much more than voice systems. I see the voice system space as a pervasive tool for controlling the world around you, and a pervasive tool for the continuing dominance of Amazon. 

The end.