THESE ARE NOT THE ROBOTS WE WERE PROMISED
Siri, Alexa and their descendants will create a virtual world meticulously designed to understand us and shape themselves to our desires, predicts technology writer
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.