Planned Subscriptions for Enhanced Alexa smart speaker services are only the Beginning for AI

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Just read an article “Amazon Will Reportedly Start Charging $5 a Month for Premium Alexa AI Features” which describes a plan by Amazon to release a new version of the Alexa speaker which will come with AI features as well as charge $5 a month for those features. Your Alexa speaker will still do the same things that its always done, but once available you’ll need to pay extra for a smarter smart speaker.

This was actually a change which had been coming for some time. Back during the hey day of the “smart speaker” wars between Google, Amazon and, later on, Apple, I don’t think that companies really thought a lot about how they were going to make money off of their smart speakers. They were even giving away their smart speakers–we own one or two which we received for free. After a while, it seemed like they were having trouble getting anybody to take them. And, of course, people were satisfied by one or two smart speakers. They just aren’t something that you need a whole lot of, especially if you don’t have a very big home. And, unlike phones or computers, they’re not essential enough to upgrade every few years.

I think that Google, Amazon, and Apple felt like the smart speaker devices would allow them to corner the Smart Home market the same way that they have cornered the phone or tablet industries. But, there wasn’t a lot of ways in which they could make money off these efforts. And, consumers surprised them by really only using the smart speakers to perform simple tasks like telling them the weather, or turning the lights on or off. They weren’t ordering products off smart speakers, the activity that makes a profit.

We actually own both Google and Alexa speakers, and have at least one speaker in every room of the house, including the downstairs bathroom. We mostly use them to look up weather reports, control the lights, and play music. Alexa will sometimes recommend book purchases to me, but I just decline them because I am not an impulsive buyer, and if I am going to buy something I would prefer to research it first on a computer rather than by talking to my smart speaker.

So, the technology companies used their smart speakers as a “loss leader,” and it proved to be more of a loss than a profit. This is actually a trend with cloud-based technology, companies will often offer their products or services for free, hoping that people will get hooked enough to pay for a subscription later. I do believe in supporting the services or businesses that we use, and I’m sure that there are many people who will subscribe, but it is not always a successful strategy. And, I feel as though businesses are beginning to strongarm their customers into paying a fee for their services. For example, we have been paying a subscription for the Google Suite for about two years because back when we were preparing for our son’s funeral we used Google Photos to organize the photos we wanted to use in his memorial slideshow. Well, the photos filled the overall storage space in my account, and even though I tried to fix this by eliminating files I just couldn’t keep up with our storage needs. So, we upgraded to a subscription level plan. Now, I’ve maxed out my storage again so I must still trim things so that my account doesn’t get locked up. Do we upgrade again? Or do I continue with this inconvenient problem month after month? Eventually, I think we will need to upgrade.

This is in addition to our cloud storage on Apple, which we pay a service fee for. That’s an additional situation, where we rely on the cloud storage to back up the photos and data from the three phones which are on our plan. I guess my point is that it would be important to assess what kind of value we get out of the services we pay subscriptions for, especially since a lot of them are non-tangible other than what we see in our personal setting screens.

It makes sense for Alexa to charge for a “smarter,” AI-powered Alexa. This will also allow them to finally put emphasis on the word “smart” in the phrase “smart speaker.” Really, I think that the tech industry may have been waiting for this moment when they could sell speakers which are more conversational. Before now, it was sort of like pretending we were having conversations. While this will be a major milestone for technology and bring a huge Wow! Factor, and there will be early adopters, I am not sure that the average person will buy into a subscription fee for AI on a smart speaker. Those who are just curious about smart speakers will probably be satisfied with devices that do what they do now. Those who, like me, own speakers, will remain generally satisfied. Still, I am sure that the other technology companies will follow up with their own subscription-based services for AI on their speakers. How long before Apple charges for an AI-enriched Siri?

The other side of this is the way that companies are inserting AI driven services into their products, or pushing AI in general. While I see the benefits, I can’t help feel a little cautious about letting ourselves get too reliant on AI. Much like the interactions with the smart speakers, access to AI has been either for free or for a nominal charge, but it won’t be long before companies introduce paywalls and suddenly we’re paying for AI to do the things that we once did for ourselves. And, ultimately, does that make sense? This might seem silly or strange to worry about, but consider how much we rely on technology already.

Consider the Tesla cars, for example. I rode with a friend in his Tesla a few weeks ago and, while its self-driving features are pretty impressive, the car is not yet truly autonomous. It understands how to get from point A to point B based on coordinates on GPS, but along the way it requires the driver to stay aware at the wheel and nudge it along when it misses things that the average human driver knows to do. I’m happy they’ve programmed their cars this way, but this means that the vehicles do not yet understand things like pulling over when there is police activity along the side of an expressway, or staying in the left lane only to pass. There is definitely room for improvement, yet Tesla is charging a subscription to its drivers for these more complex self-driving (but not truly autonomous) capabilities. It’s nice to let the car do the driving, but is it actually worth paying for? My friend let his free subscription run out after its expiration, so apparently he does not think so.

We need to ask ourselves where all of this technology is leading. Eventually, we will be able to interact with AI in our homes, our cars, and at work. It might help us plan weddings, track a schedule, book flights, and so much more. First of all, what this means is that AI is poised to replace all of those jobs which were once required to perform those services. Case in point, once vehicles can be made completely autonomous, will we still need taxi and bus drivers? Or will public transit vehicles drive themselves? Secondly, these are all services that can be charged for, and it is scary to think how that might be structured. Angry that you now pay for five separate streaming services just so that you can watch all of the movies and television shows that you want to watch? Imagine how you’ll feel when you are paying for several different AI services and add-ons. This might include a service in your home, one in your car and–I don’t know–the one that’s on your watch. The company or companies that control those services will make all of the money.

And, that’s assuming that the AI is accurate and reliable. So far, there are plenty of examples of times when it isn’t. Tesla didn’t wait to charge for its self-driving service until after they had made their cars completely autonomous. The article about Amazon’s AI-powered Alexa noted that users who tested the new Alexa reported that the answers were not always accurate. Yet, it seems that Amazon is planning on rolling out this new product in August.

We need to be weary of companies who claim that the devices they are selling can think as well as a human does. Because if they are wrong and/or over promising, then we are not going to get our money’s worth. And, if they are right, we are allowing ourselves to become so dependent on their services that we will have no choice but to pay any price that they ask us to.

If you don’t believe that it will happen, just try to imagine spending a week without looking at Facebook, checking your email on the cloud, or giving commands to Siri on your phone. Imagine if a month from now, you are still able to take advantage of all of these services, but at the very least they come with a monthly subscription fee. How would you feel about them then?

Your answer is a peek into the future.