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Bringing Grandma Back from the Dead

What Amazon’s Alexa and Gallup’s new poll teach us about our times
June 30th, 2022

By Jim Towey

Perhaps you saw the story recently of how Amazon boasted at its MARS 2022 conference that, with only a minute-long tape recording of one’s grandmother speaking, the company’s artificial intelligence engineers could now manufacture a nearly perfect reproduction of her voice and program her to say anything.  Of course, to avoid alarming the public with its demo, Amazon made sure grandma’s voice offered a soothing bedtime story for a beaming grandchild.

Gee, I thought Alexa was designed just to turn on the kitchen lights, play my favorite music, tell me the time of day or answer my questions on command!  But in the new world of deep fakes, where photos, videos and now voices can be reproduced to deceive, Alexa is an emerging star.

Amazon’s sights go beyond the fakery of “voice conversion.”  As Dilip Kumar, Vice President for Physical Retail and Technology, informed the rapt audience, Amazon intends to usher in “the golden era of artificial intelligence” through innovations developed while a distracted public is occupied with Covid and an impending global economic recession.  

The sun never sets on A.I. development. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one such beehive of activity.  Its Ariel Ekblaw briefed the MARS audience on what her team of researchers was doing “at the cusp of interplanetary civilization.”  To infinity and beyond!

“Power of the Palm”

Ekblaw was preceded on the program by Amazon’s Kumar who, after bragging about Alexa’s capacity to deceive, I mean, please customers and little children starved for ancestral connection, told attendees how Amazon is “reinventing retail,” as he put it.  Shoppers, he said, just hate waiting in check-out lines.  So Amazon is pioneering “shopping experiences” at 50 Whole Foods stores that utilize “Just Walk Out” technology to allow a shopper, “by the power of their palm,” to purchase groceries without the hassle of checking out. A demo showed a shopper placing her hand over a scanning device and then gaining entrance into Whole Foods.  Not all palms are created equal, of course, so Amazon should start preparing signs for its stores that say, “No Poor Palms Permitted on Premises.” Beside winning an award for alliteration, Amazon would at least be shooting straight with us. 

I found Kumar’s candor interesting.  He didn’t disguise the fact that the company “hid complexity from the customer” (his words), you know, like all the surveillance technology and manipulation of algorithms and shopper data to maximize profits. How many cameras are necessary for a “Just Walk Out” shopping cart to work?  Kumar said 20-25 cameras are needed for its “computer vision and machine learning algorithms.”  So shoppers, get scanned as you enter and then smile because your every move is being monitored by Amazon’s A.I.. What fun!

As I wrote in an earlier blog, what Amazon is doing while it tries to “enrich the daily lives of everyone, everywhere,” as Kumar claimed, is dehumanizing.  The technology treats humans as simply objects in the store, with their palm prints communicating an individual’s economic value. Jobs will be lost as technology dominates.   

Gallup: Belief in God at all-time low in U.S.

Gallup’s recent poll showed belief in God is at an all-time low in America. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, 98% of Americans said they believed in God.  Now it is 81%, and one in six Americans does not believe in God at all. The young (68%) and liberals (62%) are the smallest believers in God of the various cohorts, with the biggest drop among those 18-29 – the very same people most engaged in, if not addicted to, technology.  Why believe in a real God when a deep-fake god who delivers creature comforts will do?

According to Gallup, only half of those who believe in God say that God hears prayers and can intervene on someone’s behalf, so one could argue that even believers have become half-hearted. Steep drops in church attendance and membership seem to demonstrate that a decrease in belief in God and the practice of faith go hand-in-hand.

Faith in Alexa, on the other hand, is on the rise.  Will a distracted America awaken to the dangers that deep fake photos, videos, and voices, and biometric oppression and ever-present camera surveillance, portend? Or be lulled to sleep by Alexa?

Here’s what I believe: the mighty hand of God is much greater than the power of the puny palm.


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