PALO ALTO, Calif. — It has been almost two decades since Google started to dominate internet search the way Microsoft dominated software for personal computers a generation earlier.
Now computer scientists at Stanford University are warning about the consequences of a race to control what they believe will be the next key consumer technology market — virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.
The group at Stanford, led by Monica Lam, a computer systems designer, last month received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is for an internet service they hope will serve as a Switzerland of sorts for systems that use human language to control computers, smartphones and internet devices in homes and offices.
The researchers’ biggest concern is that virtual assistants, as they are designed today, could have a far greater impact on consumer information than today’s websites and apps. Putting that information in the hands of one big company or a tiny clique, they say, could erase what is left of online privacy.
“A monopoly assistant platform has access to data in all our different accounts. They will have more knowledge than Amazon, Facebook and Google combined,” Dr. Lam said in an interview.
Virtual assistants have access to a broader and more personal range of data than, say, a search engine. A virtual assistant can be like a personal secretary, with access to many of the most intimate details of your life.
Dr. Lam is collaborating with a group of Stanford faculty members and students to build a virtual assistant that would allow individuals and corporations to avoid surrendering personal information as well as retain a degree of independence from giant technology companies. Read more