Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep and wishing you didn’t need to wake someone else up just so you could talk about your problems? Wish no more: Yesterday, the Casper mattress company unveiled a texting bot that will see you through your dark night of the soul. Called, appropriately enough, the “Insomnobot 300,” the “super chatty” text bot is available between 11:00 pm and 5:00 am to talk about . . . well, whatever is on your mind. The promotional spot for the bot claims it is “a friendly, easily distracted bot designed to keep you company when you just can’t fall asleep.”
Casper isn’t the only company eager to push its brand into your most private spaces. This week also saw the announcement of Google Home, a device that uses voice activation to answer questions about the weather (or anything else, for that matter) and that allows you to stream music. It’s a rival to Amazon’s Echo, which performs similar functions (although Amazon’s Echo will also order a pizza or an Uber ride for you, something Google Home evidently doesn’t do).
Both devices are trying to be the must-have tech accessory for the so-called “smart home.”
And both will face stiff competition from Jibo, perhaps the most intrusive (and creepily marketed) entrant in the field of smart home tools.
Jibo is billed as a little electronic addition to the family that can “hear, see, speak, help, learn, and relate.” He is, according to his makers, “helpful to everyone,” including kids, for whom he is a “responsive storyteller and playmate [who] uses movement, animation, and sound to delight you and help you learn.” Jibo can also babysit senior citizens, since old people evidently like attention, and who has time for that in today’s busy world? As Mashable described it, “Jibo isn’t an appliance, it’s a companion,” which seems about right for a world where we interact with friends on Facebook more than in real life.
But these smart home “companions,” which lure us in by promising to listen to us whine about our day, have ulterior motives: namely, gathering extremely detailed information about their users to sell to advertisers. As Will Oremus at Slate warned, “Pixel and Home, in short, are not just a smartphone and a smart speaker. They’re vessels for Google Assistant, and by extension, they’re portals for Google’s advertising business.”
So the next time you think about telling your deepest darkest thoughts to a mattress company’s chatbot at 2 a.m., or complaining about your boss to your “smart” Google or Amazon home device, pause to consider how many people will eventually have access to this information—and what kinds of products they will be marketing to you because of it. On the other hand, perhaps these intrusive devices will lead to a revival of reticence, since the only way to keep things private will be to keep them to yourself. At least until engineers perfect the data-mining of dreams.