They grow up so fast.
Amazon’s Alexa has come a long way in the just over two years since its initial release. What started as an experiment in the AI assistant space has spread like digital wildfire. Since Amazon first made the Echo smart speaker available to consumers, Alexa has amassed nearly 6,000 skills and racked up third-party integrations as quickly as developers can code (and consumers can whip out their credit cards).
The AI assistant is becoming an integral part of a smart home frenzy with functionality well beyond Amazon products and services. Alexa has shown up (or will soon show up) in smartphones, smart fridges, smart home hubs, multiple upcoming connected vehicle models and basically every new appliance Whirlpool plans to put out.
Now, Los Angeles has even begun to develop location-specific skills for Alexa, with tentative plans to bring Google’s Allo and Microsoft’s Cortana along for the ride. Is this the dawn of the age of the smart city?
Well, maybe. But like most things, Los Angeles is starting off small with its AI assistant integrations — testing the digital waters rather than diving in head-first.
As of right now, the “L.A. City” Alexa skill is running a limited beta. Launched last month, users could ask Alexa to find holiday events in the Los Angeles area by saying, “Alexa, ask L.A. City what’s happening today [or this week].” The AI assistant will then list off basic information regarding city-sponsored events.
In February, the AI assistant’s Los Angeles skills will reportedly expand to inform users about reading times at local libraries and information about Los Angeles city council members and upcoming council sessions. But this could be just the beginning of Alexa’s L.A. residence.
Developers at the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency, the folks behind the initial L.A. City Alexa integration, are reportedly planning to leverage the information from the Los Angeles open data portal, which provides access to data related to the city budget and services, transportation, the local economy, etc.
Using this data, the developers have high hopes to enable digital civic engagement and eventually deliver government services via the Amazon AI assistant. It’s a sort of IoT-based 3-1-1 service for the 21st century, allowing complete access to L.A. city services via voice-activated smart technologies.
The future is rife with possibility for voice-enabled civic engagement in Los Angeles and in cities beyond. Imagine a world where you can not just access city information or request municipal services but also cast a vote in a local election straight from your living room.
Though perhaps a bit far-fetched at the moment, it’s not too difficult to visualize a scenario in which voting technology leverages voice technology. But that step will require a serious overhaul in consumer IoT device cybersecurity awareness. Since the technology is so fresh, performing civic duties via AI assistant will likely come later rather than sooner. Many people still haven’t quite figured out the whole AI assistant thing just yet. (Let’s not forget last week’s dollhouse incident or last year’s DDoS attack on Dyn.) It’s one thing when it’s an accidental Amazon order; it’s an entirely different matter when private information and public office could hang in the balance.
Still, as voice-activated AI assistants continue to spread just about everywhere, consumers might catch on that, while voice and AI technologies make a bunch of things easier — from ordering food to keeping track of daily tasks to navigating in a car — their use comes with some added responsibilities attached. While they can do a great deal of things, voice-activated AI assistants still aren’t smart enough to do the thinking for us just yet.