Voice-controlling tech? I’m sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you right now…
Duncan Bell considers his relationship with Alexa, and whether those two crazy kids have what it takes to make it
Alexa! Hey Siri! Okay Google. Bixby, I summon thee. A few years ago, if you said those things out loud to inanimate objects, people would have thought you were mad. Today, they will only think that if you say the last one. And yet, I’m not ‘down’ with it, as today’s modern young people say.
When Siri and Google Assistant launched, I tried them out. Once, for some reason, I asked an Android Wear watch, “Is Jim Bowen dead?” to ‘test’ it. Impressively, it duly provided evidence that he was not, at the time. Then, Echo and its robovoice genie Alexa arrived.
Yes, my bisexual/swinging relationships with Ms/Mr Siri and Ms/Mr Google* had swiftly faltered – we don’t even exchange Christmas emails anymore – but Alexa seemed fresh and different.
*As a side note to this, you could write a book on the gender politics of choosing to make an AI assistant ‘female’ by default… but maybe it shouldn’t be by me, A Man.
Alexa. Alexa! ALEXA!
Just as in all the best relationships with humans, I found the Amazon AI was attentive to my commands, and obedient. More importantly, unlike Google and Siri, Alexa seemed to really listen to me, so I didn’t have to endlessly repeat my commands or be constantly met with “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re on about,” which I get enough of from people, really.
However, over time, a certain frostiness has developed. Again, just as with real people, the more you get to know Alexa, the more irritating it becomes.
This is odd, because the idea of AI is for it to get better over time, as it
‘learns’, yet for whatever reason, Alexa seems ever less able to hear what I’m saying as time goes by.
Voice control relies heavily on trust. If, when conversing with a human, you say something the other person ignores, it is mortifying. The same applies to inanimate objects – more so, in fact, because the notion of speaking to a pile of plastic with microchips in feels inherently stupid to us.
So when Alexa starts doing that thing where the little light comes on, like it’s listening to you, but then it deliberately and calculatingly refuses to turn on the lounge Philips Hue Lightstrip, that hurts.
Then there’s Alexa’s ‘sense of humour’. Whenever I meet people from Amazon, they are at pains to tell me that people love Alexa’s ‘quirky’ ‘personality’ and ‘jokes’.
The thing here is, you usually have to know in advance what to ask her. For instance, Amazon suggests you might ask for a ‘shark joke’. Hang on, why would you do that? Nobody in the history of comedy has ever asked for a shark joke. The only reason you would do that is that you had read somewhere – say, on a website that has published a press release from Amazon – that you should ask Alexa for a ‘shark joke’.
Okay, and here is the joke: “Why don’t sharks eat clown fish? They taste funny.”
Right. Now firstly, that joke would not be funny if delivered by a clone made from the DNA of Richard Pryor, Cary Grant and Chuckles the Extra Amusing Clown. It’s definitely not when rendered in Alexa’s sub-HAL 9000 monotone. And secondly, WTF even is a clown fish? That joke is just rubbish.
Don’t tell me my reservations are because I’m too old to ever be comfortable with AI or voice control of tech, either. I know millennials, and they adopt the same nervous tone when speaking to voice assistants, because even their young, barely formed and avocado-addled minds have learned all too well the rejection and contempt that may well result from asking them anything.
Hell, even my nephews, who are all under 12, adopt a distinctly aggressive approach to asking their Google Home to do anything – again, just as they do with real people. Home AIs still have a long way to go to be accepted, but maybe it’s not because they are alien and futuristic; perhaps it’s that they are all too human.
Nobody in the history of comedy has ever asked for a shark joke