Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the industry.
Mike: Aloha, Farhad! I am back from my Hawaiian vacation with a fabulous tan and a desire to quit my job and move to Oahu forever. Alas, I will settle for returning to our weekly newsletter, which is … almost as nice.
Farhad: Admit it, you couldn’t stand to be away. Our weekly chats about business are much more fun than an island getaway.
Mike: Right. So.
This last week has been mostly bad news. The entire stock market took a dive, then rebounded, then rebounded again from that rebound. I have no idea which rebound we’re on now. Tech stocks seem to be up, though, maybe thanks to Apple’s chief, Tim Cook?
We’re still seeing fallout from the hacking of Ashley Madison, the website for extramarital affairs, though apparently the site’s users were mostly men talking to women who never used the site. Oh, and Amazon’s smartphone and tablet division is having layoffs, per The Wall Street Journal, because I guess people don’t want to buy Amazon smartphones and tablets. (I know I don’t.)
One thing I do want to talk about that received some attention on Wednesday: Facebook’s “M” project. It’s a smart digital assistant, built directly into Facebook’s messaging app, and it’s supposed to help people perform menial, everyday tasks like ordering flowers for your spouse or booking a table at a restaurant.
My first reactions were A) cool and B) ugh.
“Cool” because this thing uses a mix of intelligent algorithms to suggest things to you and human customer service reps who can help train M to become better. It is also an interesting use of text messaging — a tool that pretty much everyone is accustomed to using for communication these days.
But I said “ugh” because this, along with so many other recent Silicon Valley start-ups, seems like a thing created to satisfy the whims of people who are flush with cash and mostly need to worry about so-called first-world problems. If I ever get to the point where my biggest dilemma is that it’s too difficult for me to buy gifts or make restaurant reservations, then you can start playing the world’s tiniest violin for me. Am I being too cynical?
Farhad: I get your worry about Silicon Valley focusing on stuff for rich people (I’ve fretted about it before), but from what I can tell, Facebook’s M doesn’t sound like an app for “the 1 Percent.”
Instead, it sounds more like an improved version of digital assistants like Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana (well, Facebook says it’s improved; I haven’t tried it). I think of those assistants as friendly user interfaces for that most ubiquitous assistant of all, Google.
I bet that when these artificial intelligent agents begin to work really well, they’ll be able to compress several Google searches and lots of clicking around the web into a single query: Instead of going to a travel site to search for flights and a hotel, agonizing over lots of choices, you will say, “Hey, M, book me a week in New York in the middle of September,” and your software will take care of the whole thing for you. And just as Google is useful for more than just rich people, this sort of thing would probably find mainstream appeal — as useful for scheduling a doctor’s appointment or child care as it is for booking dinner at Per Se and a night at the Plaza.
Can you tell I’m really excited about artificial intelligence? I find Siri and its kin pretty dumb today, but I can’t wait for these bots to take over the world. Why do you hate robots so much, Mike?
Mike: I don’t know. I watched “The Terminator” a lot as a kid. I figure Skynet will kill us all at some point.
Look, Yann LeCun, the man Facebook hired to work on artificial intelligence, is a smart guy. So I don’t discount his ability to do some truly amazing things in this field, as well as David Marcus, the man running the M project inside of Facebook Messenger.
Could A.I. one day accomplish a lot of cool things for us? Sure. Am I making a big, paranoid leap of logic when I think that Facebook’s restaurant reservations robot could one day enslave humanity to do its cold, soulless bidding? Probably.
I’m just saying that someone has to be wary of this stuff, right? I mean, I’ve got Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk on my side. And they’re pretty smart guys, too.
I sound like a Luddite. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m a tech reporter.
Farhad: So let’s get this straight — in the span of a few paragraphs, you went from worrying that Facebook was building a tool for the rich to speculating that the new feature might be the first step in Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to enslave us all?
Actually, come to think of it, I don’t really have much evidence that you’re wrong.
No, but seriously: I’ve been on the fence about these worries regarding artificial intelligence. On the one hand, as you point out, many smart people have expressed real alarm about future A.I. On the other hand, current A.I. seems so unintelligent, and so potentially useful, that I can’t help but celebrate any innovation in the field.
What can I say? Some men like to watch the world burn.
Mike: I think we ended on an optimistic note? It’s good to be back.