Eleven million Amazon Echoes sit on kitchen counters today. Most people who own one–or any other smart home speaker–probably don’t spend a lot of time questioning the fact that this always-listening device records data about them and then ferrets it away in a server, where it is used in ways they may never know about. But would we question that arrangement if Alexa were a real person, rather than a device?
That’s the idea the artist and UCLA assistant professor Lauren McCarthy is putting to the test. This week, McCarthy launched a project called Lauren in which the Los Angeles-based artist embodies a eponymous smart home assistant. For three days, she acts as the brains behind a willing volunteer’s smart home, doing everything from turning on lights to giving advice to just chatting, like a living, breathing Alexa, Cortana, or Siri.
“I’m thinking of myself like a learning algorithm,” she says. “The first day is rough–an early prototype of Lauren–and the future [Lauren] has learned and is more skilled and effective.”
To carry out the project, McCarthy installs smart home appliances and cameras all over the home of the willing user. That means she has full control over the lights, music, and temperature, as well as locks, faucets, and even tea kettles and hair dryers. She also installs a speaker so the participant can make specific requests of her. She even read a computer program thousands of sentences so that she could respond using a computerized version of her voice. On top of that, cameras let her watch her inhabitants 24/7, sleeping when they sleep, learning from their needs, and responding to them.
Lauren can do things like order food on request, but she also pays attention to people’s habits and tries to anticipate what they want–dimming the lights before a movie, for instance, or turning on music during dinner.
McCarthy found that some people who tested Lauren wanted her to take more control than others. She witnessed one date–which was stressful, because she was responsible for setting the mood with music and lighting–and two friends hanging out. Their hours-long conversation was particularly intimate–the kind of dialog between friends that a stranger rarely gets to witness. Meanwhile, McCarthy felt the most powerful (and panic-stricken) when she momentarily couldn’t find the remote that unlocked the door to one of the users’ homes.
While the first three participants came from her extended network, McCarthy is now launching Lauren online. Anyone in the world can submit an application and she’ll consider running the experiment in their home. She’s already booked two more sessions, in San Francisco and in the Netherlands, and has received about 10 applications since the launch. People either are immediately drawn to the idea of being watched (and of doing the watching themselves), McCarthy says, or they’re utterly horrified by the thought of either. “There are people who are actually like, I want to try that, that sounds better than Alexa,” she adds.
But the larger question about Lauren, and the relationship between technology and privacy that the faux-AI underlines, remains: “Does it feel more uncomfortable to know there’s a human that’s watching, or is that more comforting that your data is being stored on a server somewhere?”
She hopes that the project makes ubiquitous surveillance, which is often discussed in abstract terms, much more tangible. “One question I think about a lot with surveillance is that it feels like it’s so pervasive, but we’re not given a lot of ways to understand it or respond to it,” she says. “What I’m hoping is that people have the chance to engage with ideas of surveillance in a way that feels more nuanced and more personal.”
With digital assistants gaining a foothold at home, where our most intimate moments take place, Lauren spurs reflection on the implications of AI in our personal lives. “It’s this AI entity in your home. There’s a specific set of values and information that it holds,” she says. “But the home is the place where as a child, you first learn to be a person, you first learn social values and how to interact with the world. And to have some of that shaped by a system like this feels wrong to me.”
Lauren, the “fake AI,” was far from perfect herself. At one point, she completely lost connection to the house she was controlling and had to ask the people to “turn her back on.” Ultimately, even a smart home run by a person is flawed. Still, McCarthy had one thing going for her: “People had a lot more forgiveness for me than for Siri.”