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.

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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?

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