If you put an AI in charge of your house — letting it control the lights, the alarms, the temperature, and so on — how would you want it to act? Should it be “autonomous and challenging” or “obedient and assisting”? Would you prefer if it sounded male, female, or if it was gender neutral? Should it be religious?
These are just some of the questions Ikea is asking its customers in a new survey titled “Do you speak human?” The questionnaire was launched late last month by SPACE10, Ikea’s “future-living lab,” which is tasked with exploring how our houses will look and feel in the decades to come. Ikea isn’t saying you have to have an AI running your house, but it’s 100 percent certain it will be an option.
“We know AI is coming and we know there are tremendous opportunities in this area to create a better service for people around the world,” said Göran Nilsson, Ikea’s head of concept innovation, in a blog post. “Ikea could accommodate people’s individual needs as well as empower the 285 million people who are visually impaired using AI and conversational interfaces. We are curious to hear from the many people how they feel about AI.”
Ikea isn’t in the AI business itself, but it has been making inroads with the technology-enabled furniture. It’s launched coffee tables with built-in wireless chargers; LED light panels; and in March, it unveiled its first proper “smart” product — a Wi-Fi-enabled light bulb called the Trådfri (it means “wireless” in Swedish). It’s easy to imagine a future where Ikea brings its simple aesthetic and design competence to the mess that is today’s smart home, and it’s good to hear the company talk about helping those with disabilities, a topic that’s too frequently overlooked in Silicon Valley.
With this new survey, Ikea is focused on computer personality, looking to find out what sort of AI people would be happiest to interact with. This is a question that preoccupies the big tech companies, too — that’s why they’re hiring novelists and comedians to finesse the personality of their digital assistants.
Ikea is updating the results of the survey as it goes; so far it’s saying that 41 percent of people want their AI to be “obedient and assisting,” 42 percent want it to be “gender neutral” (as opposed to 35 percent for male, 24 percent for female), and 87 percent say they want their AI to “detect and react to emotions.” There’s bound to be some self-selecting bias at work here, as the people who answer this survey are more likely to be interested in technology in general, but it’s still a very intriguing project.