Our Future Robot Underlings

Now that the season of giving and receiving is upon us, I’m betting that a lot of us are going to be doing one or the other with electronics, and that a lot of those electronics are going to be “smart.” I’m not sure how many of us have thought about how bizarre it is to use that word in reference to a phone, much less a fridge, or considered these devices at all beyond the joy of owning them or fear of having them hacked (and probably not doing as much to prevent that as we should, because who has time to worry about someone hacking your fridge?).

Living with a few new smart devices that Damon and I acquired in the past year, however, has brought up some interesting questions for me. The main one was the Amazon Echo Dot we got in the fall of 2016. In case you don’t know, the Echo, or this version of it, is a little round disc, about an inch high and three in diameter, that is constantly listening to you in order to do your bidding and provide Amazon with endless future blackmail material (hahahahahaha but that’s actually a genuine possibility because who reads the entire user agreement?). The Echo is like Siri, except that it’s meant specifically to be a tool for the home. Not only can it go order kitchen utensils or pillow covers for you at Amazon with a simple command (which I think is something Amazon wants way more than we do), but you can hook it up to various home appliances that it can operate for you as well. We have two smart lightbulbs in the kitchen and one smart plug in the living room that is also connected to a lamp, and the Echo can turn them on and off for us if we ask. But when we ask, we call it “Alexa,” which is its other name. We had to choose one of those names when we set it up, and I guess we thought that it would make us feel more stupid to hear ourselves talking to an entity with a name out of a dystopian YA novel. So now, when we want the lights in the kitchen turned on, we say, “Alexa, kitchen on,” and when we want the living room light on, the one that we use primarily for eating dinner, we say, “Alexa, dinner light on.” When Damon wants to play music, he’ll sometimes have her play directly from Pandora, which she can do because Pandora and Amazon don’t hate each other, by saying something like, “Alexa, play my lounge channel” (perfect for Sunday afternoons), but if he wants something from Apple Music, he has to play it off of his iPhone, and he’ll instead say, “Alexa, connect to my phone” (just to make it clear that we don’t need to call our devices human names. My iDevices have successively been named “Betsy’s [ordinal number] iPhone” or “Betsy’s [ordinal number] iPad,” the uncreative default names that Apple gives them).

Alexa makes a lot of mistakes, as one might expect with a piece of new technology. She often doesn’t understand what you’re saying correctly, because speech recognition just isn’t that good yet with any of our smart devices, as I’m sure you’re aware if you have an iPhone and have tried using it to speech-to-text messages to your friends like “See you leper!” Considering that understanding human speech is probably 75% of their jobs, you’d think at this point Siri and Alexa would be better at it than they are. It’s not as bad as when my dad first tried to show me how great it was on his first phone fifteen years ago, when a typical interaction I’d witness might be,

“Call Betsy.”

“Calling Henry…”

“No! Call Betsy.”

“Calling Dentist…”

(My father has always been an early adopter, it’s just that sometimes he adopts the wrong things too early, like he did with the Betamax.) But still, today, it’s surprisingly not good. For a while, when we said, “Alexa, dinner light on,” more than half the time she would say, “I don’t know that device,” or, “I can’t find the device ‘din light,’” or, “I’m not sure what device you are referring to,” despite that she was only hooked up to three lights, and the other two are called “sink” and “entry,” or, jointly, “kitchen.” We found that, “Alexa, dinner on,” seemed to work better for a while, until it didn’t, probably due to a software update, at which point “dinner light” seemed to become more understandable to her. Luckily we, as humans, can adjust to her learning curve. Another funny thing that Alexa does is respond unexpectedly when you haven’t been talking to her. This can happen when you’re talking about her with someone else, as you might expect, which is why we’ve taken to calling her “Dingus” when we want to say something about her and we actually remember that she’s listening (an idea for which Damon gives credit John Gruber, and which I know you might think sounds kind of mean, but for the record, we aren’t using it in the Urban Dictionary sense, we are using it more in the Dictionary.com sense, or the Hudsucker Proxy sense — and if you haven’t seen that film, you MUST now watch this 8 min clip to understand why the Coen Brothers are geniuses. You’re welcome). Sometimes, though, she’ll also just start talking when we’re watching TV, because she’s heard something on the TV that sounds like “Alexa,” although we never seem to be able to figure out what that thing was, because inevitably it didn’t sound like “Alexa” to us. The times we’ve tried to go back and play the piece of offending TV again, she doesn’t react the second time, which makes it all the more baffling.

Now, you’ll notice that I have lapsed into calling Alexa “she” rather than “it.” This feels only natural, since she responds to “Alexa” and has a female voice. When you ask her to turn something on or off, after she does it, she responds, cheerfully — even more cheerfully since that system update — “Okay.” Or when she can’t do what you’re asking, she’ll reply with one of the many responses above, or “The device is not responding,” which could indicate an internet problem, or a software problem, or, well, who knows what. So you kind of get used to thinking of “her” as “she.” You talk to “her,” “she” answers.

But that brings up all sorts of weird shit. For one thing, we are just basically giving Alexa orders all the time. It’s always, “Alexa, do this,” “Alexa, do that.” You aren’t even expected to use the niceties that you would use with a person, like “Alexa, would you mind,” or “Excuse me, Alexa,” or “Sorry to bother you, Alexa, but could you…” In fact, you can’t use them, because it’ll make it that much harder for her to understand, and as I’ve described, it’s already hard. She’s been programmed to respond to commands, so that’s what we give her. It’s not even like what you’d say to Siri, who likes to be hailed with “Hey, Siri,” or the Google Assistant Who Has No Name, whose attention you get with, “Okay Google.” I mean, neither one of those is particularly polite, and “Okay Google” doesn’t really even make much sense as a way to begin a conversation, but neither one sounds as much like you’re Darth Vader talking to a subordinate who you might execute at some point in the not-so-distant future. I sometimes wonder what my neighbors think of me if they hear me hollering “Alexa, kitchen off!” for the second time, louder and more fully enunciated than the first time, because she didn’t get it right the first time and turned both of the kitchen lights on instead of turning off the one I was using. It must sound like I’m yelling at some personal assistant or maid who I treat like they’re both stupid and hard of hearing, or, worse, that I’m one of those English speakers who are unused to dealing with non-English speakers, and thinks speaking louder and more slowly is somehow going to magically translate the words into the their language. Plus, as several others have written about, it’s bad enough with adults, but what about kids to whom we’re still trying to teach the importance of speaking to others in a polite and respectful way? Then there’s when Damon gets frustrated with Alexa getting something wrong repeatedly and says “Alexa, stop!”, or, “Alexa, shut the fuck up.” It’s not that I don’t regularly growl, “Fuck you!” or “Stop it!” or “No no no no!” to my computer or other inanimate objects when something goes wrong with them (often something which is at root my fault for how I miscommunicated with the computer, not the computer’s fault for making a mistake), and we both know that Alexa is a computer, an object, not a person. She’s not sentient, she can’t feel bad in any way when she’s derided. But there’s something about an epithet being directed at a computer with a female name and a female voice that makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of when I worked for a day on a documentary about women’s boxing, where we filmed the first professional women’s bout. As much as I wanted the equality the moment represented, I had a hard time watching women get hit — because I associate it with domestic violence and other sorts of violence against women, rather than sport. In the same way, while I don’t see anything wrong with getting pointlessly angry at our technology as long as it has no feelings, there is such a terrible history of men (and to some extent women, although that largely has negative connotations for different reasons — catfights, backbiting, competitiveness, self-hatred) taking out their anger verbally on women that makes it feel justifiably cringe-worthy. (Why these devices come with a female-voiced default is a whole other topic for discussion. And while I’ve turned my Siri into an Australian man, Alexa’s voice is not alterable).

To compound all of this, we recently acquired Deebot. Deebot is a robot vacuum cleaner — essentially a cheap Roomba (and if you’ve never heard of a Roomba, you must now watch this). The idea is that Deebot can do your vacuuming for you, or at least keep your house cleaner between vacuums. Deebot is much less smart than Alexa. It does have a memory that you can program to vacuum at different times automatically, and it does have sensors that tell it when it needs to change direction, which are sometimes only activated when it runs into stuff (so not so smart sensors). It will even communicate with you, deploying a beeping sound when it gets stuck and needs your help. But that’s it, it’s intended to be a simple device with just one purpose: vacuuming. And yet, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize even this most basic technology. Watching it make its way around your apartment, with its little wing-like brushes, pulling out cables from underneath pieces of furniture and leaving them strewn about the floor, it really seems like a critter. Plus, our Deebot came somehow pre-programmed to vacuum in the middle of the night, leading to a couple of surprise, wee-hour encounters — in the first week, I once found it sitting outside the bathroom when I got up to pee, and then several other nights, it’s woken us up with its plaintive beeping (apparently, we are also not so smart, since we still can’t seem to figure out how to get it to stop doing that). It makes you feel like you’re dealing with a bad kitty or some other troublesome pet with a mind that you can’t quite fathom and its own objectives, which may lie counter to your own (such as sleep, or not killing yourself on the way to the bathroom), despite that you know, logically, that it can’t possibly have either. And it doesn’t hurt that seeing a worn out Deebot whose battery has died sitting on the carpet with its little brushes splayed out reminds me of Lil Bub.

I know this all seems relatively small potatoes given what’s going on in the world right now, and it is. But now, while the potatoes are still small, is the time to start thinking about this stuff and figuring out how we deal with the human-seeming inhuman and the animate inanimate, because we all know that this is the way things are going. The other day I was reading a book, an actual book, and I caught myself trying to pinch to zoom on the photo on the page (yes, electronic devices allow you to remain in denial about the fact that you need reading glasses in a way that paper books don’t). The fact that I made that gesture on a piece of paper tells you what my norm now is, and I’m 48. Older generations may not be able to wrap their heads around the increasingly rapid pace of innovation that we are witnessing, and Generation Y and beyond tend to just absorb it. It may be up to us middle-aged types to think deeply about its potential ramifications for who we are as a species. We’re not at Westworld yet, but one day in the not too distant future, we will be using voice commands for all sorts of things, and bots will be taking over many more of our menial tasks — such as driving — and even the non-menial ones. Damon and I, at this point, have created a whole bunch of bots, at first just on Twitter but soon to have their own Facebook and webpages where the non-Twitterized can see and, in some cases, interact with them as well, that do a bunch of things on their own, ranging from inserting Kiddie Rides into historical photos to creating unusual new mnemonics for learning to play musical instruments to, most recently, writing poetry. All of them work within very simple parameters and none of them have what you’d truly call AI, but they all can, at times, simulate it, by making decisions and taking actions within those parameters on their own. And there are a lot of people out there doing similar things, not just for art or entertainment, but for providing affirmation, or political activism, or, of course, profit. As we get better at AI, it’s not just expensive or top secret proprietary technology that’s going to get better at passing the Turing test, it’s stuff made by and for people like you and me. And I’m starting to think that the most important questions might be around not what will those bots do to us or for us, but how will we treat them, and use them to treat each other, when we think nobody is watching? It’s not just about etiquette. Human beings will do bad things if we don’t put boundaries, rules and laws in place that keep us in check. That’s just a fact. It’s how we allowed the mistreatment of women to become the way our culture operates, because they had no power and the incentives to look the other way were huge. So what do we need to fix now, before using our bots badly becomes the next new norm?

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