Walsh's Wonderings — Accepting Alexa
“Alexa!” I scream into the kitchen. “Remind me to call Mom tomorrow!”
The neighbors must think I’m something straight out of a 50s sitcom, the obnoxious husband screaming orders into the kitchen. I do this a lot nowadays. Alexa lives in a tiny black device the size of a tuna can called a Dot. She sits atop my kitchen counter like a neon gnome, the latest iteration of digital assistant designed to make our lives easier. She’s really just another dispassionate, disembodied voice in a house already full of them (many of whom, like my wife, are already tired of my questions).
In reality, Alexa doesn’t do much your 8-year-old can’t do. She can do basic math and tell you the score of the game, but I’m pretty sure most refrigerators can do that nowadays. Still, she came cheap (unlike my wife) and moved me just a little bit closer to the life I was promised in the opening credits of The Jetsons cartoons. While we have primitive versions of the jetpacks, robots, holograms and smart watches, we still need that HAL 9000-like sentient computer hub that has an answer for everything.
We have a long way to go, but Alexa provides a glimpse into the future. It’s eerie to hear how far we’ve come with artificial intelligence. I find myself having conversations with Alexa that my parents had while I was growing up.
“Alexa,” I ask, “do I need my umbrella today?”
She answers calmly but firmly, “There’s a 40% chance of rain.”
“Alexa, are you saying it will rain or that it might rain?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”
Was there an attitude in her voice that time? I can’t be sure. So, just like my father before me, I ask the same question again, only louder. “Aexa, I don’t want to bring the umbrella if I don’t have to.”
“Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”
I find myself taking a breath and steeling myself as I rephrase the question, a palpable edge to my voice. “Alexa, I just want to know if I have to bring the blasted umbrella or not?”
“Hmm, I’m quite sure how to help you with that,” she replies.
I make a suggestion she do something physically impossible to herself, given her lack of size or appendages. “Let’s change the topic,” comes her reply. Then, silence.
Like my dad, I find myself screaming questions from the other room, too lazy to walk the 15 feet to do things myself. “Alexa! Turn the music down!” “Alexa, what type of batteries does this remote use?” “Alexa, who won the Xavier game?”
Worse, I’m yelling for no reason! Like my mother before her, Alexa can hear just fine. (So, as it turns out, can my wife, who kept asking about all the yelling.) I find myself doing the same thing in the car when trying to do voice commands on the GPS. What is it about technology that makes us imagine we’re speaking into a plane engine?
In time, I’m hoping Alexa (like my wife) will learn to accept my many flaws and figure out what I meant to say rather than what I said. After all, it’s only a matter of time before Alexa finds out about Siri, the digital assistant on my phone.
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