Good Code is a weekly podcast about ethics in our digital world. We look at ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong, and speak with those trying to prevent that. Each week, host Chine Labbé engages with a different expert on the ethical dilemmas raised by our ever-more pervasive digital technologies. Good Code is a dynamic collaboration between the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and journalist Chine Labbé.

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On this episode:

Have you noticed how every single object in our lives has become “smart” all of the sudden? That’s the beauty of the Internet of Things… We have smart toothbrushes, smart thermostats, smart watches. We are even building smart cities, filled with smart kiosks and smart tiles.

Our guest Jessica Vitak is very interested in these new smart devices, and in particular, she’s intrigued by the smart digital personal assistants we are introducing into our lives.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana. A lot of us are very familiar with these names. They have become part of our lives, helping us with mundane tasks. Alexa can put on music while we are baking, our hands covered in dough. Pretty cool, right? But what is Alexa actually recording of these intimate moments of our lives? How much information should we be sharing?

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We talked about:

  • In this episode, Jessica Vitak talks about some of the most elaborate personal assistants on the market. One of them is Amazon’s Echo Look, available to customers in the US since last June. It’s a style-assistant camera, that helps you pick the best outfit. Read about it in The Verge.
  • Vitak mentions her study on “the role of privacy and trust in intelligent personal assistant adoption.” One interesting finding of hers is that 60% of the people she interviewed use these devices just for fun, to ask silly and funny questions. Read her research here.
  • Vitak says intelligent personal assistants are particularly promising as personal companions. Can on-demand grandkids and robots help fight loneliness, with seniors for instance? Read about it in The Wall Street Journal.
  • Vitak also talks about the biases that end up embedded in the technology. One example she uses is that of the CEO Google Image search. In 2015, The Verge revealed that CEO Barbie was the first woman who appeared in a Google Image search for “CEO.”
  • We also mention a very realistic AI digital assistant called Mica, from the start-up Magic Leap. On this page, Mica warns that she is no traditional personal assistant. “I am an educator, agitator, companion, artist and guide,” she writes. Watch this video CNN did on her.
  • Vitak also talks about the “uncanny valley”: this moment when robots start looking almost human, but not quite, and we find it creepy. Read about it in BuzzFeed.
  • Data from digital personal assistants have already been used in court cases in the US, as Vitak explains. Last year, a judge in New Hampshire requested that Amazon handed in recordings from an Amazon Echo device in a murder case. Read about it on TechCrunch.

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