Robot Personal Assistants (and Shoppers)

I’ve been thinking about transparency, partially due to the First Amendment end-run around some product labeling laws that I discussed in my previous post.

Transparency is on-the-face-of-it great.  It’d be wonderful if we all could be perfectly informed about every element of our lives.  But information overload gets bad, very quickly.  I’m willing to bet that you don’t read all of the nutrition information on the foodstuff that you buy, much less where it was grown or what environmental practices the process of creating it was, or whatever else you care about.  Heck, if you’re like me, you probably don’t even do all that much comparison shopping for most things, even just on price.

It’s not because you don’t care about the environment or fair trade or nutrition or price.  It’s that it’s a lot of work.  If we tried to force everyone to be transparent about everything, we’d just get yet more information to not read.

But this is something that computers really could help us with.  We should be able to say, “Hey computer, when I want to buy some coffee, I want you to help me find coffee that fits my goals for the world.”  The classic science fiction vision of this is augmented reality, where you wear something like an nth generation Google Glass, and when you look at the coffee can, it pops up a heads up display that tells you, whatever, that company got high marks for their trade practices.

If you’ve read this blog a bit, you’ll know I’m somewhat skeptical of that vision.  But more importantly, it’s not really necessary.  You can buy most things online (Amazon is trying to sell groceries online, guys!  Who knows, maybe this time it’ll work!), where the technical challenges of giving you a personal assistant who can help you deal with information overload are significantly less challenging than in the wilds of the real world.  Indeed, for many items — maybe not coffee, but perhaps things like laundry detergent — I don’t see a really strong reason why we should even have humans deciding precisely what item to buy.  Why don’t I just say, “Computer, here is the set of priorities that I personally have.  Find me the product that best fits my ideals”?

That kind of pervasive computing doesn’t have the glitter and the glamour of the latest gadgets, but I think it can genuinely change the world, in much the same way that gps-enabled online mapping is perhaps not incredibly flashy, but I couldn’t imagine going back to a life without it.

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2 thoughts on “Robot Personal Assistants (and Shoppers)

  1. Amazon does so poorly on book searches for me that I doubt I will be asking it to do anything else in the near future. Google does so poorly now on “everything else” searches that I likewise will not believe what it tells me. The paid advertisers seem to have filled up the first 5 to ??? pages of Google searches… It used to work much better but now Google just seems to be the mouthpiece of its paid advertisors.

    • Books are hard, though. Where you want a labor-saving helpful system is where you don’t really care very much about the product, you just want something simple and utilitarian that gets the job done. Dishwashing detergent. Paper towels. Stepladders. Toothbrushes, maybe.

      You’d want the recommendation service to be a subscription, not paid for via advertising (which obviously presents a conflict of interest, and also has a more inherent contradiction of this wanting to be something you pay as little attention to as possible, while ad-based services want your eyeballs on them as much as possible). I’d pay $5/month for something that said, “Hey, you’re probably getting low on paper towels. Click here to order another dozen rolls of your existing brand, or click here to order another dozen rolls of brand whatever, which I’ve selected for you because they cost less than your existing brand and get identical reviews.”

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