Alexa, please define knowledge

In The Third Wave, Steve Case, the founder of AOL, describes three waves in the life of the internet. We are about to move, he writes, from the second wave, where apps were built on top of the first wave’s infrastructure, into the third wave, where the so-called “Internet of Things” blossoms and infiltrates all of the objects around us, from refrigerators to thermostats to self driving cars.

Amazon’s Alexa, the artificial intelligence behind the popular Echo and Dot, is currently riding on top of that wave. As computers have become an integral part of our lives, we have mastered the logic of directories and folders, of pointing and clicking. More recently, with touch screens, we have adapted our minds to swipes and gestures. If the brewing fight between Alexa and Apple’s Siri is any indication—not to mention Cortana from Microsoft and Ok Google—the platform for this next wave of technology will be a quite familiar: the spoken word.


When I asked Alexa how she got her name, her response was, as always, flat and matter of fact, “My name, Alexa, comes from the library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.”

Her words are grammatically correct, but I think she is misusing the term knowledge. The books in the ancient library were just information until they were opened and understood. Usage and application—these make for knowledge. Humans are malleable: We have changed the way we communicate to facilitate interaction with our machines. But not all of these changes in our modes of communication are positive. For all of its promise of connection, the internet also enables us to retreat into isolating tribalism. We can humanize these places, but that will require reflection paired with action. The new wave is coming. Will we learn to ride it, or will it overwhelm us?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

More: Technology

The latest from america

So what does it matter what a celibate woman thinks about contraception?
Helena BurnsJuly 20, 2018
Former US President Barack Obama gestures to the crowd, during an event in Kogelo, Kisumu, Kenya, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo Brian Inganga)
In Johannesburg, Obama gave what some commentators consider his most important speech since he vacated the Oval Office.
Anthony EganJuly 20, 2018
With his "Mass," Leonard Bernstein uses liturgy to give voice to political unease.
Kevin McCabeJuly 20, 2018
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, arrives for the Jan. 6 installation Mass of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Women often “bring up the voice of those who are the most vulnerable in our society,” says Hans Zollner, S.J., who heads the Centre for Child Protection in Rome.