A project from artist Lauren McCarthy asks what it would feel like if Alexa was a real person instead of a machine

It is estimated that there are now 11 million Amazon Echoes in homes around the world. While the AI assistant can be helpful, most people don't think of the fact that Amazon Echo is always on, and always listening and recording data about them. Artist and UCLA assistant professor Lauren McCarthy is running a project to examine how people would feel if Amazon Echo was a real person rather than a machine.

The project, called Lauren, has McCarthy sitting in a volunteer's home for three days doing everything that Alexa would do. She turns on lights, gives advice and helps you cook a meal. McCarthy installs smart home appliances and cameras all over the volunteer's home so that she has full control over the lights, music, temperature, locks and appliances. The cameras enable her to watch the inhabitants around the clock, both while sleeping and awake.

Lauren offers a high level of service with the ability order food and adjust a room to fit the homeowner's needs. McCarthy noticed the amount of control that homeowners gave her varied. Some were willing to have McCarthy to sit in on intimate hour-long conversations between friends, while others didn't want her in the room.

Footage from the home of one of Lauren McCarthy's project volunteers. Photo: Lauren

The project started with three participants from McCarthy's own extended network but is expanding so that anyone can submit an application online for her to come into their home. The artist reports that some individuals whom she's told about the project are horrified by the idea of having a stranger sit in their homes, but others are up for the experience.

McCarthy's project examines the relationship between technology and privacy that an AI assistant offers. Are people more comfortable with a human observing them and learning about them or are they more comfortable with a machine recording and storing your data in a far-off server?

Artificial intelligence's role in our lives is only going to grow with more connected devices. As our environments shift, McCarthy wonders how our social values and how we interact with the world might shift as well. With everything that we gain from AI, is something being lost as well?

Lauren

It is estimated that there are now 11 million Amazon Echoes in homes around the world. While the AI assistant can be helpful, most people don't think of the fact that Amazon Echo is always on, and always listening and recording data about them. Artist and UCLA assistant professor Lauren McCarthy is running a project to examine how people would feel if Amazon Echo was a real person rather than a machine.

The project, called Lauren, has McCarthy sitting in a volunteer's home for three days doing everything that Alexa would do. She turns on lights, gives advice and helps you cook a meal. McCarthy installs smart home appliances and cameras all over the volunteer's home so that she has full control over the lights, music, temperature, locks and appliances. The cameras enable her to watch the inhabitants around the clock, both while sleeping and awake.