October 18, 2019

Get to Know Alexa — Before She Takes Your Job


Alexa sits on my counter. Officially, the product itself (a “smart speaker”) is known as Amazon Echo. Echo connects to Alexa, a “cloud-based voice service,” according to Amazon. Amazon named her “Alexa” after the Great Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the most important libraries of the ancient world, a font of knowledge and information.

I originally bought Alexa as a toy, and to play music in my kitchen and living room. She connects with my Spotify and Apple Music accounts, has an excellent Bose speaker, and is fun to play with. I play Question of the Day and Jeopardy with her every day. We have her connected to our television so she can turn it on and off when we want and change the volume or the channels. We have her connected to our Nest thermostat so she can control the temperature of the house when we are not home (or even when we are home), and she can turn the lights on and off at our command.

As you can imagine, Alexa is far, far more than just a toy. In fact, she may one day steal your job.

Alexa is about to be a game changer. Amazon has sold more than 31 million of these cute little intelligent assistants. One in six Americans owns a smart speaker. With each day that passes, Alexa learns more and more skills. Her games are fun and entertaining, but they are not why Alexa is so popular. Alexa is popular because of her enormous potential — at home and in the office. She is going to make our lives easier by eliminating many of our time-consuming tasks.

Alexa Is Stealing Your JobAlexa is also an instance of artificial intelligence (AI), and many people are worried that AI will put them out of a job and render them unemployable sooner rather than later.

What Is AI?

AI is intelligence demonstrated by machines. Humans and animals have what is called “natural intelligence.” When a machine mimics natural cognitive functions such as thinking, problem-solving, learning, and understanding, it is considered to have “artificial intelligence” because it is the machine making the decisions and not a human behind the machine making the decisions.

For instance, my Alexa device can understand what I say to her. I don’t have to use a preset phrase to get her to respond. I can ask her, “What is the temperature outside?” and she will understand what that means. I can also use variations of that question, such as “Is it hot outside?” and she will understand them.

Prior to today’s AIs, we had to use very specific commands to get our computers to perform. The only way I could print a document was to use a preset command, Control + P. I couldn’t use any other sequence if I wanted the document to print. With my Alexa device, there are no set phrases I need to memorize to ensure her comprehension. She is able to interpret my words and questions.

AI can also think through complex situations, like how to play a game of chess — remember when Deep Blue became the first computer chess-playing system to beat reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997? — driving a car, military simulations, and more.

There are many people who believe that AI is the doomsday we have been fearing for centuries. In 2013, researchers at Oxford University predicted that 47 percent of jobs could be automated by 2033. In 2016, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 9 percent of jobs in the 21 OECD countries evaluated were at high risk of being automated. In 2017, McKinsey & Company estimated 5 percent of jobs could be done entirely by computers.

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Naysayers claim that 800 million jobs will be eradicated by AI worldwide, thereby rendering much of the population unemployed and potentially unemployable. They claim our social systems will be exploited and AI will bankrupt our governments. Some go so far as to say that AI will eradicate humanity.

On the other hand, advocates of AI tell us we can look forward to lives of leisure while robots take care of the mundane and routine tasks that currently fill our days.

Those in the middle (myself included) recognize AI is just another step in our evolution. We have had two industrial revolutions already, as well as changes in transportation and the digital revolution (also considered the Third Industrial Revolution by some). Now, we may be facing the Fourth Industrial Revolution: AI.

Like the previous changes we’ve seen in history, AI may be disruptive in the short term, but if we are smart about what we do and how we do it, AI will not trigger humanity’s final countdown. We are evolving, just like we did 30 years ago with the digital revolution — but at a much faster pace.

Machine learning, robotics, 3D printing, and AI are having such a significant impact in what feels like a short period of time thanks to a combination of three powerful tech-driven events: the rapid digitization of the economy (we are creating trillions of gigabytes of data every year), the affordable cost of storing all that data, and an explosion in computing power. In simple terms, this all means we are creating an incredible amount of data daily, we can store it fairly cheaply, and computers have the ability to do things with that data much faster and more accurately than humans are capable of.

In light of all this, AI doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, I’m convinced it will be fantastic.

Excerpted with permission from the book Alexa is Stealing Your Job: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Your Future by Rhonda Scharf. Morgan James Publishing (August 6, 2019).

Rhonda Scharf is an award-winning speaker, consultant, and author specializing in tech-driven people power. Learn more at On-The-Right-Track.com.

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Rhonda Scharf is an award-winning speaker, consultant, and author specializing in tech-driven people power. For more than 25 years, she has helped companies and individuals get on the right track and improve their productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency. She has conducted more than 2,500 training workshops and seminars for Fortune 100 companies and tens of thousands of people worldwide. Her new book is "Alexa Is Stealing Your Job: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Your Future" (August 2019). Learn more at On-The-Right-Track.com.