Siri, Alexa and their de­scen­dants will cre­ate a vir­tual world metic­u­lously de­signed to un­der­stand us and shape them­selves to our de­sires, pre­dicts tech­nol­ogy writer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Forum - NI­CHOLAS CARR

From the mo­ment we hu­mans first imag­ined hav­ing me­chan­i­cal ser­vants at our beck and call, we’ve as­sumed they would be con­structed in our own im­age. Out­fit­ted with arms and legs, heads and tor­sos, they would per­form every­day tasks that we’d oth­er­wise have to do our­selves. Like the in­de­fati­ga­ble maid Rosie on “The Jet­sons,” the of­fi­cious droid C-3PO in “Star Wars” and the tor­tured “host” Dolores Aber­nathy in “West­world,” the ro­botic help­mates of popular cul­ture have been hu­manoid in form and func­tion.

It’s time to re­think our as­sump­tions. A ro­bot in­va­sion of our homes is un­der­way, but the ma­chines — so-called smart speak­ers like Ama­zon Echo, Google Home and the forth­com­ing Ap­ple HomePod — look noth­ing like what we ex­pected. Small, squat and sta­tion­ary, they re­sem­ble vases or cat food tins more than they do peo­ple.

Echo and its ilk do, how­ever, share a cru­cial trait with their imag­i­nary fore­bears: They il­lu­mi­nate the times. What­ever their shape, ro­bots tell us some­thing im­por­tant about our tech­nolo­gies and our­selves.

Although smart speak­ers have been around just three years, they al­ready have a hold on us. The de­vices, pow­ered by “chat­bots” like Siri and Alexa, are in the midst of a sales boom. Some 35 mil­lion Amer­i­cans now use the diminu­tive, talk­ing com­put­ers — more than twice the num­ber of just a year ago, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by eMar­keter — and an­a­lysts pre­dict that three-quar­ters of United States house­holds will own at least one of the gad­gets by 2020.

It’s not hard to un­der­stand the

at­trac­tion. Smart speak­ers are or­a­cles of the coun­ter­top. They may not be able to speak for the gods, but they can de­liver re­ports on news, traf­fic and weather. And they have other tal­ents that their Del­phic an­ces­tor couldn’t even dream of: They can serve as DJ. They can di­ag­nose ail­ments and soothe anx­i­eties. They can read bedtime sto­ries. They can even bark like a watch­dog to scare off bur­glars. And they prom­ise to be the ma­jor-do­mos of home au­to­ma­tion, ad­just­ing lights, con­trol­ling ap­pli­ances and is­su­ing or­ders to spe­cial­ized ro­bots like the Roomba vac­uum cleaner.

Still, if you were look­ing for­ward to hav­ing a Rosie scur­ry­ing around your abode, feather duster in hand, an Echo feels like a let­down. It just sits there.

There are good rea­sons that the do­mes­tic ro­bot has taken such an unin­spir­ing form. Some are tech­ni­cal. Visu­al­iz­ing a nim­ble, sure­footed an­droid is easy, but build­ing one is hard. As Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Il­lah Nour­bakhsh ex­plains in his book “Ro­bot Fu­tures,” it re­quires ad­vances not only in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence but also in the com­plex hard­ware sys­tems re­quired for move­ment, per­cep­tion and dex­ter­ity.

The hu­man ner­vous sys­tem is a mar­vel of phys­i­cal con­trol, able to sense and re­spond flu­idly to an ev­er­chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Achiev­ing such agility with sil­i­con and steel lies well be­yond the reach of to­day’s engi­neers. Even the most ad­vanced of our cur­rent au­toma­tons still get flus­tered by mun­dane tasks such as load­ing a dish­washer or dust­ing knick­knacks.

Mean­while, thanks to gains in net­work­ing, lan­guage pro­cess­ing and minia­tur­iza­tion, it has be­come sim­ple to man­u­fac­ture small, cheap com­put­ers that can un­der­stand ba­sic ques­tions and com­mands, gather and syn­the­size in­for­ma­tion from on­line data­banks and con­trol other elec­tron­ics. The tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try has enor­mous in­cen­tives to pro­mote such gad­gets. Now that many of the big­gest tech com­pa­nies operate like me­dia busi­nesses, traf­fick­ing in in­for­ma­tion, they’re in a race to cre­ate new prod­ucts to charm and track con­sumers.

Smart speak­ers pro­vide a pow­er­ful com­ple­ment to smart­phones in this re­gard. Equipped with sen­si­tive mi­cro­phones, they serve as in-home lis­ten­ing de­vices — be­nign-seem­ing bugs — that greatly ex­tend the com­pa­nies’ abil­ity to mon­i­tor peo­ple’s habits. When­ever you chat with a smart speaker, you’re dis­clos­ing valu­able in­for­ma­tion about your rou­tines and pro­cliv­i­ties.

Be­yond the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, there’s a daunt­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier to con­struct­ing and sell­ing an­thro­po­mor­phic ma­chines. No one has fig­ured out how to bridge what com­puter sci­en­tists term the “un­canny val­ley” — the wide gap we sense be­tween our­selves and im­i­ta­tions of our­selves.

Be­cause we’re such so­cial be­ings, our minds are exquisitely sen­si­tive to the ex­pres­sions, ges­tures and man­ners of oth­ers. Any whiff of ar­ti­fi­cial­ity trig­gers re­vul­sion. Hu­manoid ro­bots seem creepy to us, and the more closely they’re de­signed to mimic us, the creepier they are. That puts roboti­cists in a bind: The more per­fect their cre­ations, the less likely we’ll want them in our homes. Lack­ing hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics, smart speak­ers avoid the un­canny val­ley al­to­gether.

Although they may not look like the ro­bots we en­vi­sioned, smart speak­ers do have an­tecedents in our cul­tural fan­tasy life. The ro­bot they most re­call at the mo­ment is HAL, the chat­ter­ing eye­ball in Stan­ley Kubrick’s sci-fi clas­sic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But their cur­rent form — that of a stand-alone gad­get — is not likely to be their ul­ti­mate form. They seem fated to shed their phys­i­cal hous­ing and turn into a sort of am­bi­ent dig­i­tal com­pan­ion. Alexa will come to re­sem­ble Sa­man­tha, the “ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent op­er­at­ing sys­tem” that be­guiles the Joaquin Phoenix char­ac­ter in the movie “Her.” Through a net­work of speak­ers, mi­cro­phones and sen­sors scat­tered around our homes, we’ll be able to con­verse with our so­lic­i­tous A.I. as­sis­tants wher­ever and when­ever we like.

Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg spent much of last year pro­gram­ming a pro­to­type of such a vir­tual agent. In a video re­leased in De­cem­ber, he gave a demo of the sys­tem. Walk­ing around his Sil­i­con Val­ley home, he con­ducted a run­ning di­a­logue with his om­nipresent chat­bot, call­ing on it to sup­ply him with a clean T-shirt and toast bread for his break­fast, play movies and mu­sic, and en­ter­tain his in­fant daugh­ter. Hooked up to cam­eras with fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware, the dig­i­tized Jeeves also acted as a sen­try for the Zucker­berg com­pound, screen­ing visi­tors and un­lock­ing the gate.

Whether real or fic­tional, ro­bots hold a mir­ror up to so­ci­ety. If Rosie and her kin em­bod­ied a 20th­cen­tury yearn­ing for do­mes­tic or­der and fa­mil­ial bliss, smart speak­ers sym­bol­ize our own, more self­ab­sorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives vir­tu­ally, through so­cial net­works and other sim­u­la­tions, our ro­bots should take the form of dis­em­bod­ied avatars ded­i­cated to keep­ing us com­fort­able in our me­dia co­coons. Even as they spy on us, the de­vices of­fer sanc­tu­ary from the un­ruli­ness of re­al­ity, with all its fric­tions and strains. They place us in a vir­tual world metic­u­lously ar­ranged to suit our bents and bi­ases, a world that un­der­stands us and shapes it­self to our de­sires. Ama­zon’s de­ci­sion to draw on clas­si­cal mythol­ogy in nam­ing its smart speaker was a mas­ter­stroke. Ev­ery Nar­cis­sus de­serves an Echo.

Daniel Mar­sula/Post-Gazette

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