Editorial: More companies need to temper their Artificial Intelligence with authentic ethics
When Apple outlined that its new HomePod didn't initiate phone calls on its own, nobody jumped to the conclusion that this was because having a device in your home that anyone's voice could use to place a telephone call from your personal mobile number might be a bad idea. Instead, the company was generally lambasted for "again" failing to match one of the many features of Amazon's Alexa Echo always-listening appliances.
This week, Alexa got famous for recording a private conversation and automatically sending it to a random contact of the owner. That's something HomePod doesn't do, not because Apple doesn't know how, but because Apple chose not to rush to make it possible to do things that might not be a good idea in the long run.
The people who celebrate Yes vs the company that says No
The same restraint Apple exercises in saying No to product ideas is also used to cautiously hold up the deployment of features while spending time thinking about the potential of unintended consequences.
This is not appreciated by most members of the tech media, who are paid to create content that celebrates what's new. They hate it when Apple says No to anything.
This was true in the days before the App Store, when Steve Jobs got flack for explaining that Apple was thinking carefully about the pros and cons of running third-party software on an always-connected mobile device full of personal information. Apple was also cynically criticized for not allowing the "side-loading" of apps from other sources. Google was cheered for allowing this until it was recognized to be an extremely bad idea that resulted in serious problems.
Apple's pattern of authentic ethics— doing the right thing for its customers, rather than treating them as a product to sell to advertisers— has attracted the most valuable demographic of hardware consumers in the history of technology
Apple was also cautious about restricting third parties to access users' location data, contacts and calendar and it pioneered efforts to block iOS device ad tracking by web-style cookies. It built device encryption into iPhones years before Google even attempted it. iMessage and FaceTime deployed end-to-end encryption before anyone knew they needed it. When it created ApplePay, it kept users' transactions private rather than recording it all for its own future analytics.
Advertisers hated Apple's dominance in hardware because these restrictions affect their ability to manipulate users. Many third-party developers have also railed against Apple's restrictive Nos. But for Apple, saying no wasn't a show or a series of irrational rulemaking. It was authentic, ethical concern for the users of its products.
Over the past decade, Apple's pattern of authentic ethics— doing the right thing for its customers, rather than treating them as a product to sell to advertisers— has attracted the most valuable demographic of hardware consumers in the history of technology.
Why HomePod doesn't record your conversation and send it to a contact
It's pretty dumb to think that Apple simply couldn't figure out how to make HomePod work as a speakerphone. Siri on iPhone has had the ability to make hands free speakerphone calls since iOS 8.3 in 2015, and this has also been a key hands free feature of CarPlay. But when putting Siri in a new HomePod form factor, Apple spent an unusual amount of time considering the potential consequences of the new design.
In developing HomePod, Apple wasn't just racing out a feature set that could be compared against Amazon and Google. Instead, it was developing HomePod's advanced speaker technology at its own pace, throttled by authentic ethical contemplation— a regulator that Appel's rivals rarely seem to consult.
Apple has time to make such methodical decisions about ethical issues because it's not racing to catch up in the mobile world. Apple owns virtually all premium phone sales, dominates tablets, sells the most premium notebooks and makes the most watches of any vendor globally— including virtually all of those used with a voice assistant.
Despite the desperate media narrative that presents Apple as lagging behind in the largely worthless "home surveillance and voice shopping" market (a tiny sliver of the products Siri touches, and by far the least valuable sub-segment of voice-assistant hardware), Apple is actually the largest vendor of voice assistant devices by units, by dollars and by region and language. Apple's Siri is vastly larger than Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
That does not at all mean that Siri is better in every respect than its rivals. There are a variety of things Siri simply can't do, for less than obvious reasons. For example, it can translate English phrases into a variety of languages but can't go the other direction to translate foreign phrases.
Rivals have shown off impressive leaps that best Siri in a variety of areas
Rivals have shown off impressive leaps that best Siri in a variety of areas: conversational threads (rather than having to speak each command separately), being able to identify individual speakers, interfacing with a wide variety of third-party services and so on.
Some of these advantages over today's Siri are the product of Amazon, Google (and even Microsoft) working really hungrily to establish some relevance in an emerging potential market after failing to significantly capitalize on mobile phone hardware, on tablets, on watches or wearables. But the fact is that Apple has decisively won in every category as its rivals dumped out a series of flops and giveaways.
In part, this was aided by Apple's adherence to authentically ethical practices rather than blindly racing to shovel out new features without any thoughtful curation or to dive into unsustainable low pricing. While Apple's Siri trails the bleeding edge of voice assistants in several significant ways, the company is positioned to catch up, without any desperate need for racing its efforts.
Apple's authentically ethical tortoise wins more races than the variety of thoughtless, bargain-priced hares that have raced it in the past. Media spectators keep judging Apple as if it's in a race with the calendar or the feature set of its competitors when in reality, Apple's race is a cyclical buying pattern where customers vote with their dollars, over and over.
Ethics and authenticity
When relentlessly locked in a high-speed race and seeking to catch up, it's easy to lose sight of ethics and instead simply grasp desperately at what looks like it could be money. But when you shed your ethics, or simply pretend to be ethical in your actions, it's readily apparent to others because humans are generally pretty good at detecting authenticity in actions— particularly the ones who make the best customers.
Microsoft's desperation to be cool in the days of Zune (trying to catch up with iPod) allowed it to sexualize teens in its marketing, cheapening its brand while not authentically reaching the audience it was posing for. It spent years rolling out a variety of new technologies and unique features but didn't ever capture enough attention from buyers to support its efforts. Zune is now dead.
Google's desperate efforts to muscle into phones with its largest-ever acquisition of Motorola (massively larger than anything Apple has ever bought), along with its parallel efforts with Nexus and Pixel brands, have pushed fictions about wanting to build phones in America, waiting to offer new tech cheaply to the masses and wanting to help developers create important, world-changing AI solutions.
Yet Google was also quick to fire its American workers and sell Motorola to China, to blow up the prices of its Pixel devices to match or exceed Apple, and has tied many of its technical AI developments to proprietary Pixel hardware even as it warbles about the openness of Android.
To anyone with any sensitivity to obnoxious, grating noise, Google's PR songs extolling its own righteousness and aversion to evil are a stomach-turning series of brown notes. And commercially, all of Google's product concerts have only attracted thin, cheap-seat crowds that haven't managed to keep the theater lights on.
Amazon made a big splash over the last year in gaining attention for its voice-first Alexa technology salvaged from its failed shopping-oriented Fire Phone. Paired with its WiFi microphone, Alexa Echo accomplishes for Amazon what Likes did for Facebook and what cookies did for Google: it creates a background spying mechanism to harvest behavioral data on millions of users.
However, without authentic ethics to tether its use and restrict it from doing things it "can do but shouldn't," Amazon will increasingly find itself having to repeat apologies and excuses for lapses like the one that just happened. Just like Facebook does.
Racing to build and deploy features first and then consider the outcomes only after they surface as problems is not only a bad way to do business but is also bad for business.
Wearables demand authentic ethics, too
If authenticity and ethics seem important in home appliances that sit in the background and listen to what you're saying virtually all the time, they're even more desperately needed on devices users trust to carry or wear on their person. That's the future of wearables, and Apple is taking these considerations seriously.
Access to personal, identifying, private and confidential information can be very useful to drive artificial intelligence engines that suggest routes, purchases, phrasing or other information before we can think to ask. But this data also needs to be handled responsibly, and policies need to authentically consider ethical issues before they become corporate quandaries.
So far, Apple is deeply invested in pursuing such thoughtful contemplative efforts, while its rivals do not even seem to recognize this as an issue. That's not going to work out well for them.