TALK­ING TECH

Voice-con­trol­ling tech? I’m sorry, I’m hav­ing trou­ble un­der­stand­ing you right now…

T3 India - - Contents -

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

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