Outsmarting the Consumer

Smart consumer technologies aim to anticipate our every need. Question is, do we know what we really want?

Smart technologies and the Internet of Things have made the news lately as manufacturers tempt us with new offerings to make our lives easier. LG’s new smart fridge, for example, has a panoramic internal camera so you can check on the contents via your smartphone while you’re shopping at the grocery store. If it’s an Amazon Go store, currently being trialled in Seattle, all the better. You only need to tap your cellphone on the entrance turnstile; then just pick up the stuff you want and walk out with it. In-store cameras, microphones and pressure detectors will monitor everything you pick up – and subtract the items you put back on the shelf – before totalling up everything you’ve taken and charging your Amazon account. All the thrills of shoplifting but without the inconvenient court appearance.

Or maybe your job is so high-powered that you just don’t do shopping anymore? With Amazon Fresh, you can order groceries direct from the fridge touchscreen. Or just call out your list to Amazon Echo. Hopefully it will know the difference between six bananas and six bunches of bananas, like an online grocery order recently didn’t in my case. But hey, I like bananas.

Meanwhile, passengers on Carnival cruise ships will soon be able to leave everything in the cabin except for a small medallion, worn around the neck or wrist. It will monitor where they are on board, via 7,000 sensors and 72 miles of cable through all 19 decks. As they stroll past the restaurants, gyms, spas or cinemas it will flash up helpful suggestions on 55-inch screens, based on their previous preferences. As passengers approach their cabins it will switch on the lighting and unlock the door all ready. The aim is to anticipate the guest’s every need.

Feeling a bit spooked yet? Only me, then.

Smart technologies are taking more and more out of our hands. Manufacturers are working flat out on autonomous vehicles and some, like Tesla, are further along this route than others. The only issue is how much autonomy we’ll be handing away – Google’s self-driving cars don’t even have a steering wheel. There will undoubtedly be fewer accidents when fallible humans stop driving cars (the accidents that do occur, however, will scare us more. Because we’ll be helpless).
Maybe that’s why we love stories that show our smart new helpers are fallible. Like the six-year-old in Dallas who recently asked Amazon Echo, “Alexa, can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” Alexa immediately ordered a $170 KidKraft doll’s house and, oddly, four pounds of sugar cookies. The whole situation snowballed when a TV reporter used the wake word ‘Alexa’ in describing the incident, thus ordering even more dolls houses in the homes of the station’s TV viewers.

But with Google Home and Amazon Echo to do our shopping for us, and with cars that can chauffeur us wherever we want to go, it does pose a serious question about what we mere humans will do with ourselves. Learning to drive well is an accomplishment. Shopping in the physical world can show us things we didn’t know existed while delighting us with visual and tactile sensations. Travel can bring us face to face with the unfamiliar. We can even get lost on a whim. It’s all part of the human experience. Programmes that attempt to anticipate our needs are based on algorithms. Very sophisticated algorithms, sure, but still based on the way you and I tend to behave in the majority of situations. Perhaps we need to assert our right to do things the hard way, or try something new.

Of course, there’s every chance that Google and Amazon and Apple are working flat out on algorithms that replicate those random actions that make us human. So if one day your Google self-driving car suddenly announces it feels like taking the long way home, or if Alexa ignores your request for pizza and delivers tacos ‘for a change’, the game truly is up.