TECH

Talking To Our Computers Is Changing Who We Are

"We are getting rewired to interact with aliens."
It's watching us.
It's watching us.

We're talking to our technology more and more every day. 

On Wednesday, Google introduced its new personal assistant, Google Home, which will listen to your voice and provide information on demand, much like the popular Amazon Echo.

It's just the latest in technology that's always listening and talking back. Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana have been chatting with people for years -- and one expert predicts that voice-driven technology will have startling effects on our social interactions moving forward. 

"There used to be a disconnect between how we interacted with, say, our desktop computers and our family," Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, told The Huffington Post. "We interacted with that computer only when we wanted to. Now technology is pervading the home environment. Your machines can interrupt and interact with you day or night, should they choose to."

There's ample research already showing that technology is changing our brains. Psychology Today reports that constant exposure to tech can limit our retention of information, heighten our awareness and increase our reaction time. Research psychologist Larry Rosen wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year that our phones are making us less sociable in real life:

Our real and virtual worlds certainly overlap, as many of our virtual friends are also our real friends. But the time and effort we put into our virtual worlds limit the time to connect and especially to communicate on a deeper level in our real world. With smartphone in hand, we face a constant barrage of alerts, notifications, vibrations and beeps warning us that something seemingly important has happened and we must pay attention. 

Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, has done extensive research on human interaction and technology. In her books, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age and Alone Together, she found that human beings prefer online social interaction over the stressful and unpredictable interactions that happen in real life. What results is a feeling of community while you're actually more disconnected.

“That’s what technology does,” she told HuffPost in April. “It makes us forget what we know about life. When it comes to certain things, we really need people. What has been most striking is how difficult it is for us to give each other full attention when we have our devices and how much we’re losing out.”

But are we really changing our behavior to match our tech's capabilities? Nourbakhsh thinks so. He notes that we have simplified our language in the real world to match the way we interact online (LOL and ♥ are in the dictionary, people).

And if Mark Zuckerberg's "chat bots" work out, companies will soon be speaking -- and selling -- to us using artificial intelligence that is nearly indistinguishable from humans, rather than customer service reps. 

This all might lead to something more sinister, Nourbakhsh said: we could soon be talking to intelligent advertisements.

"You have to understand, these are essentially alien creatures," he said. "When you talk to Echo you’re not talking to a human being— you’re talking to a tentacle on a massive octopus that pervades knowledge. When I talk to my Echo, I’m talking to a machine that's thinking of possible monetizations. We are getting rewired to interact with aliens."

He says it doesn't matter whether voice-activated home devices like the Amazon Echo are a passing fad -- all that new tech is part of our slow dive into a new era of social interaction. That may feel like conspiracy theory, but our machines are already improving by leaps and bounds in the way they talk to us. 

For instance, Georgia Tech professor Ashok Goel revealed to his class this year that his teaching assistant Jill Watson -- who'd been answering students' questions online  casual, nuanced conversation -- was actually a bot, The Washington Post reported.

Tech gurus have known for a long time that our devices would have extreme social impacts.

"We love our computers; we love our phones. We are getting that feeling we get from another person," said Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak said in 2012.

Sometimes, talking to our devices gets creepy, too. Have you ever asked Siri what zero divided by zero is?

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