This is unsettling. The help is getting surly.
We were in Brooklyn heading to a favorite Mexican dive when a pal, Demetri, asked about a movie we’d seen recently. My wife, Wink, happened to be using the voice recognition system on her phone at the moment, and suddenly came a stern rebuke along these lines: “There’s no need to talk to me like that.”
Demetri, startled, mumbled a good-natured apology, but the voice evidently was too miffed to reply.
Why an inquiry about “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” prompted disapproval, we’ll never know. A modern mystery, one of many, and another reminder of how easy it is to get in trouble.
A short while later, news stories appeared regarding Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo personal assistant. Users claimed Alexa had been laughing at them for no reason.
“It was really creepy,” tweeted one.
“We unplugged her,” reported another.
The tech geniuses at Amazon said a fix was in the works and that, most likely, Alexa had simply misinterpreted remarks uttered in her presence and decided to lighten the mood. Nothing personal, you see.
Frankly, I’m not blaming Alexa.
Consumers of modern media, beware. Equipping your home with what amounts to an eavesdropping device invites mischief. When we had a dog, I felt I had to be careful what I said around him. Who knows what an animal understands? I’d be whispering nonstop if Alexa were on the end table.
Where are we with Artificial Intelligence, anyway?
A recent poll by Northeastern University and the Gallup organization found that 85 percent of Americans use one AI application or another — navigation, streaming, personal assistance, “smart” home devices like “self-learning” thermostats, that sort of thing. Of those surveyed, 79 percent said AI had a “very or mostly positive impact on their lives so far,” pollsters reported.
It’s the “so far” that interests me.
Oh, I know how familiar this sounds.
My parents were suspicious of television at first. We had a friend who lamented the arrival of pocket calculators for fear children would stop learning how to add. (Have they?) I once thought email would never last. (OK, that was a miscalculation.) Social media? Even before Facebook’s latest security problems, I wasn’t a subscriber. No one really needs updates on my latest lunch at Panera or trip to the mall in search of flannel-lined corduroys.
I’m not crazy about all the “connectedness” that comes with AI and associated miracles, anyway. Children — adult or otherwise — forever lie in wait. The bumper sticker maxim, “Parenthood Is a Life Sentence Without Parole,” gains special relevance in the Information Age.
Recently, our daughter in Virginia texted photos of the gash in her lawn where workers were installing a sewer line. From a son, we get pictures of his Chihuahua mix in itty-bitty Mets paraphernalia. Most alarming was a video call on FaceTime from the Virginia offspring and her Northport sister, who was visiting.
Delightful, for sure, to see their sweet selves on the screen, but what was that in the upper right corner — that giant chin wearing bifocals? Good grief, it was their father.
Have you ever tried speaking to a loved one while maneuvering for a photo angle that does not make you seem extraterrestrial? Too much stress. Bring back the rotary dial.
OK, just kidding.
I’m not retreating to the days of polio shots and duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills, but I think it’s OK to wonder about a world where technology has so much impact. Great things are on the way, I know, in terms of health care, climate, robotics, workplace safety. Terrific.
And, yes, I am happy when Netflix announces a new detective series and Pandora is playing Erroll Garner. On the smartphone I once vowed I would never buy, there is an app called “Got to Go” that locates the nearest restroom, brilliant. Another, called “Shazam,” amazingly, listens to music and tells you that, yup, bingo, you got it, that was, indeed, the Continentals singing “Fine, Fine Frame,” from way back in the dreamy rhythm ’n’ blues days of 1956.
Everything in moderation, is all I’m saying. There are times when it’s nice just to unplug, tune out, take stock. Embrace your double chin. Laugh at yourself. Give Alexa the afternoon off.