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So I have my personal butler that comes when I pull on the bell-hop. He fetches me music, orders in dinner, and even claims to automatically restock the pantry. But what happens below stairs is a little bit of a mystery to me. I know that he scurries away to his closet and waits patiently for my next call, but how does one keep oneself busy below decks?

Turns out that our personal bot builders are thinking that there are a bunch of things to keep the butler busy. And herein is a problem for bot-builders – one that they’ve responded to by thinking that they can do more that simply sell us smart machines. They’re building the ‘operating systems’ for our daily existence. And if we are to become reliant on these systems then they can do a whole lot more to monetize our needs and wants. For example, how about clipping every transaction that the bots intermediate? You may not even have to pay for your shiny new fridge, if the fridge can take over the task of buying your daily provisions.

We can see the opportunity in this – a bot for every home, mixing our drinks and picking up the dog poo. But this business model poses one of the biggest challenges with personal bots – who are they really working for?

In the olden days, my butler was working for me. For a modest salary, he lived under my stairs, ate my food and shined my silverware. It would have been unusual indeed if he took a margin on the food that he purchased for my family, even if there was always the chance of a little slippage. The point being that the cost of the butler was effectively a fixed fee that was paid by me – this served to align our interests.

But what are the motivations of a bot that delivers profits to a third party based on the transactions that it can intermediate? It sounds suspiciously like they are motivated to sell me more and in ways that generate the highest profits to someone else.

We are being sold a fairy tale that a few companies can build the operating systems for our lives. This is not the way that evolution works. It thrives on difference and competition. We would be wise to encourage this – to have the bot-builders compete away their ‘clip-the-ticket’ business models – and before we all become dependent on our digital butlers.


In a conversation with a CEO of one of Australia’s largest health insurer’s, we were talking about the demographic problem that our society faces as upwards of 400 people a day are turning 75. The demand for aged care services is outstripping supply. As a mutual, he posited the question as to where I would prefer to have my parents looked after – in a mutually owned aged care home or for-profit one. It’s the same question about alignment of interests. I joked that they could get a mutually-owned fleet of personal bots. Perhaps it is not such a silly idea…


 

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