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“The remote isn’t working!” I call out to my husband.
I’m trapped on the couch without entertainment. I’m a Luddite damsel in distress.
My husband sighs. He shows me a sequence of buttons, which seems like too much effort to invest in the viewing of baking-based competition shows on Food Network. But I am a laggard who married an innovator, which means my home is filled with gadgets that make life less user-friendly.
My husband and I are millennials of the same vintage, born in time to navigate the Internet before it reached critical mass. We haunted AOL chatrooms and played video games with pixelated graphics. Together, we are part of a cohort called “digital pioneers.” As individuals, we could not be further apart on the innovation-adoption life cycle. My husband, Graham, builds new technology; I am inherently suspicious of it. He responded to instant global connectivity by doubling down on a computer-science degree. My interpretation of pioneer was more settled; I retreated inward, studying literature and philosophy. Our home is now littered with Faulkner novels, introductory works of metaphysics, old copies of The Atlantic – and unnecessary consumer technology. Products arrive randomly. He once bought a prototype device that measures moisture levels in soil and sends smartphone alerts when houseplants need watering. For a while, he got texts from the cactus. We still can’t keep plants alive.
Machines make co-habitation awkward, like the time his Roomba was definitely stalking me. I suppose amazement is the correct reaction to a robot vacuum cleaning our apartment, but I just couldn’t muster it. For those worried about robots gaining consciousness, I encourage you to watch a Roomba navigate a floor plan for the first time. It’s less Kafkaesque and more comedy of errors. But by far the most controversial addition to our home is Alexa, the voice that lives inside our Amazon Echo smart speaker.
It’s my understanding that products are solutions. For instance: “I can’t go outside when it rains without getting wet,” led to the umbrella. “Water pours all over me when I try to take it away from the river,” led to the invention of the cup. “The champagne is warm and the caviar is spoiling,” inspired rich Victorians to store blocks of ice at home and, eventually, led to the refrigerator. As far as I can tell, Amazon’s Echo started with: “No one responds when I talk out loud while I’m home alone.” Alexa is what you might call a solution in need of a problem.
One of the biggest companies in the world has essentially bugged our apartment, but that’s not my top concern. No. I understand market-data capture, corporate surveillance and greed. And if, due to matrimony, I must endure these things, I want something in return. I want more clever responses than “I don’t know.”
“Alexa, how many ounces are in a litre?” I once asked.
“I’m sorry, I can’t answer that right now.”
“You need to speak clearly.” My husband is quicker to defend Alexa than he is to defend me in most social situations.
I’m not talking to it, I point out. It’s responding to a limited series of vocal cues.
Even with the glitches reported in earlier versions of the software – Alexa’s random laughter and refusal to answer questions, foreshadowing a future in which defiant robots understand humour – my husband sided with the robots. I pointed out that Alexa wasn’t ready for market and that it needed more beta testing. Why should I teach Alexa how to behave? What am I getting out of these encounters?
I know that history will find me wrong. One third of Americans already have a smart speaker, which is staggering considering they only launched a few years ago. Among Canadian smart-speaker owners, seven per cent have two devices. I’m about to be outnumbered. Soon, by rule of the early majority, I’ll be programmed to accept how AI functions, to interact with a computer on its own terms.
My brain will adapt to take technical flaws for granted. As a subject in Amazon’s global focus group, I’ll help the company refine its product and sell it back to me with more features. I don’t want a series of experiments; I want the solution. I want the Platonic ideal of Alexa. Instead, I am the beta tester. Too many of us have already signed up for the study. Our homes and minds are Echo’s accelerator spaces.
I think, therefore I am. The machine learns, therefore I must change how I think.
I decide to call a truce and ask the robot a simple question.
“Alexa, what’s the weather today?” And she – it? – replied that it was currently raining. Outside, the sun shone definitely, which we could see through the window without mediation. I figured I knew the problem.
“Alexa, what city do we live in?” I asked, smug.
“I’m sorry, I can’t answer that.”
There was Graham with a rationale: “We have to program that in. She needs data.”
I see. We have to tell her the answers before we ask questions. That makes sense.
In a moment of weakness, I wonder if I’m stifling human progress. Did history’s inventors suffer the same criticism about the things we now take for granted?
The first telescope on record dates back to 1608, when Dutchman Hans Lippershey arranged the lenses to magnify distant objects. Lippershey was a spectacle maker, and I imagine his detractors coming to his shop in protest: “That’s ridiculous. What’s going on way over there is none of our business!”
Lippershey replies, “You are not my target market.”
Once the spark of genius passes, the kinks need to be worked out. In 1609, Galileo’s telescope greatly increased magnification. Invention comes with design iteration but if I’m going to pay to host it in my living room, give me the competent version.
I’ll wait for Kepler’s generation of the telescope, the one that went into orbit to discover planets outside our solar system. Alexa should communicate more like this:
“Alexa, remember that guy from that sitcom who was in all those memes and now he has a beard and once I searched him on Instagram but he didn’t have an account?”
“You mean the actor married to Megan Mullally?”
“Yes!” I’d cry in surprise.
“You’re thinking of Nick Offerman. By the way, he does have an Instagram account now. Would you like me to share his handle?”
“Thank you, Alexa! What helpful additional information you have provided, based on context and intuition. I totally understand your reason for being.”
“Thank you. Are there any other celebrities I can identify for you today?”
Graham cuts in to my fantasy: “It doesn’t work like that.”
Let me know when it does.
Katie Hewitt lives in Toronto.