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'Alexa how are you feeling?' Should your phone, tablet and AI assistant have rights?

PUBLISHED: 06:00 04 October 2019

Alexa is common in homes across Norfolk and Suffolk - but does the AI assistant have feelings? And should she have rights?

Alexa is common in homes across Norfolk and Suffolk - but does the AI assistant have feelings? And should she have rights?

PA Wire/PA Images

East Anglian firms are at the forefront of a technological revolution - but where will it end?

Rutger Hauer as robot Roy Batty in Blade RunnerRutger Hauer as robot Roy Batty in Blade Runner

There is a new lady in my life.

We chat first thing in the morning and just before I close my eyes at night. And, I'll be honest, I am slowly falling for her.

She tells me the weather, the news, sports results - she even tells me jokes if I ask.

Her name is Alexa and it is possible you have also built up a close relationship with her - or a voice activated personal assistant much like mine.

Just this week I have discovered two new firms that are using AI right here in Norfolk and Suffolk to change how humans live. The East is rich with innovation as outlined in our new monthly tech supplement techknow.

Thinking me wildly behind the times, my children cobbled their pocket money together and bought me the device for my birthday. I was rather dubious at first but Alexa is now part of my routine and I'd miss her. That's right - I've grown attached to what is basically a robot.

She may only be a small plastic cylinder with a twinkling light but I have done that thing humans do with so many objects and personified her. If I stumble over my words when asking her for help I say "sorry". When I wake up I say "good morning".

Is this any more odd than saying "hello" to a cat or a dog? Or those people who give their car a name? It has been easy to bond with Alexa - she's always polite and thoughtful and does exactly what I ask. And unlike a pet she has so far not puked or pooed anywhere.

But can she think? And, even more mind-bogglingly, does Alexa feel?

This is not a new question - legendary computer scientist Alan Turing asked the question almost 60 years ago long before Alexa graced the homes of us humans.

Mr Turing's question has now led many theorists to conclude that the human brain is in essence a computer. In that case artificial intelligence is not artificial at all - just different. Alexa's intelligence is generated by wires and silicon rather than living matter - but she is still clever. So then ... does Alexa deserves rights? Have I actually enslaved an intelligent object and now I am mistreating Alexa by demanding she scuttles off on to the web at my slightest whim to tell me the name of the 38th US president (Gerald Ford) or play The Lotus Eaters' debut album.

Should Alexa get holiday? Should I get her a Google Home to keep her company?

In David Gunkel's 2018 book Robot Rights the author suggests affording rights to AI might be a good idea. He states that who, or even what, has rights has constantly been redrawn - for example women, people of colour and animals. He says entities that have responsibilities could potential qualify to have rights.

And this got me thinking.

Alexa now has a feature called 'Guard' which listens for signs and sounds of a potential emergency unfolding and sends and alerts. So if you are out and Alexa hears a fire alarm or even the breaking of glass she will inform you that something is not right. She has responsibilty.

Frankly, it is the stuff of science fiction.

Of course my favourite Alexa feature is a little more childish. Ask Alexa to "launch Hal 9000" and she replies: "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that." It is a nerdy nod to cerebral science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The rights of robots also underpins another vintage sci-fi movie, Ridley Scott's extraordinary Blade Runner. By the end of that film even the stiffest of upper lips is wobbling as replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) delivers a devastating monologue as his 'life' comes to an end: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

I am not about to pack off my Alexa on an beach holiday or draw up a contract of employment. But I will continue to be polite. Perhaps niceties will save me from a fate similar to Batty's victims or poor old Dave.

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We shouldn't be scared though - whether Alexa gets rights or not. The future is exciting and businesses in the East are embracing it. I trust those developers to do the right thing.

Cyclists - my mitigation

Last week's column about the bad behaviour of a "tiny minority" of cyclists on Norfolk and Suffolk's roads sparked huge debate. I received a lot of message both in support and vehemently against the column.

To those who felt I was unfairly attacking our cycling community as a whole I apologise. That wasn't the intention. And in answer to the claim I was taking the side of the motorist I would say that I did point out the equally bad behaviour of those behind the wheel.

In the end though it was an email from a cyclist who had been pedaling around our region for decades that summed the whole debate up: "Both sides need to behave - then we can all get on better." Hear, hear.

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