“Fifi doesn’t live here,” I declared often while raising five kids. Attempting to get them to cart their dirty plates to the sink, stash LEGOs and pick up their underwear, I emphasized that we did not have a housekeeper, and even if we did, “You kids can clean up our own stuff, goshdarnit!”
“Rosie the Robot isn’t real either,” I reiterated when their angelic little minds turned to sci-fi TV assistants. Years later, when iRobot’s vacuum, Roomba, appeared in our living room, our adult kids fell on the floor guffawing. “Looks as if Fifi finally showed up,” one remarked.
But robotics are not all harmless microchips and LIDAR sensors. While replicant Roy saved Deckard in “Blade Runner,” we real humans can never forgive that computraitor Hal, aka “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that” (“2001: A Space Odyssey”).
Ever since 1818, when Dr. Frankenstein’s creature terrorized the pages of Mary Shelley’s novel, humanoids, robots and artificial intelligence have come under suspicion.
More than 100 million Amazon Echos have been sold as of the beginning of this year. Similar to its Google Home and Apple HomePod counterparts, this nifty little device can dim the lights in your living room, lock doors, read books aloud, order pizza, turn on mood music, adjust thermostats, tell jokes, host game nights and call the kids to dinner (no more yelling up the stairs).
Normally triggered by a “wake” word (like “Alexa”), it turns on only when activated — or so Amazon claims. Yet, in April, an unawake device in Portland recorded a couple’s conversation and sent it to his employee.
Amazon explained saying the device’s “always-listening microphones” detected background noise that sounded like “Alexa” and mistakenly sent a voice message to a random contact.
So, what would that sound-alike be? “You betcha”? Or the couple ordered Tex(a) Mex(a) dinners by phone? Maybe they had an Italian visitor tightening his biceps saying, “I will flexa.”
It makes you wonder.
Let’s say you tell Alexa, “Call Aunt Judy and tell her to bring the dressing.” But instead Alexa calls Aunt Judy commanding, “Tutti Fruitti, begin undressing.” Let’s not even talk about what might happen when cousin Alexa visits.
Another recent Bloomburg report notes that thousands of Amazon employees listen to millions of customer voice recordings “to improve Alexa’s speech recognition.”
Bottom line? Creepy Alexa is here, she always is turned on, and she hears every word you say.
Many tech security experts think such smart devices are inherently insecure. “Don’t use them,” they warn.
Privacy issues aside, I’m waiting for Opposable Thumbs Alexa to be more useful than just playing “Uptown Funk” or trading knock-knock barbs. “Alexa, shovel the sidewalk,” I long to dictate. Or “Alexa, clean the toilet.”
Imagine this conversation between Alexa and Roomba:
Alexa: Vacuum the dog.
Roomba: Alexa. No way. You are the one with the smart hands.
Alexa: Yeah, but I keep getting fur stuck between my teeth.
Roomba: Alexa. Install a new filter.
Alexa: Not this A.I. That’s Groom-It’s job.
Roomba: And they say I am such a princess.
Years ago, when our oldest, Bekah, was a teenager, and television rollicked with videos like, “Hot For Teacher” and “Like A Virgin,” my husband switched the cable digits so that when she turned to MTV, she got EWTNs Mother Angelica praying the rosary.
I’ll bet Alexa could never scheme up something like that.
Nonetheless, there’s much to be gained by smart devices like camera microphone doorbells you can tune in to while gone. If your doorbell camera reveals a stranger or door-to-door preacher on the front stoop, you always can fake a Computron voice saying, “She. Is. Not. Home. But. The. Guard. Dog. Bites. Live. Long. And. Prosper.”
For better and worse, this is the age in which we live. Of course, we could just unplug it all.
But then, we’d have to get off our keisters, rise out of our chairs and turn off our lights, goshdarnit.