Home Commentary State of Mind: Do You Hear the Voices?

State of Mind: Do You Hear the Voices?

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In the 1984 film “The Terminator,” Kyle Reese, who is the character sent back from the future to protect Sarah Connor, the mother-to-be of future leader John Connor, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” cyborg, warns about a coming war against the machines. Judging from the ineffective responses of the authorities to the Terminator in the rest of the film, when that war breaks out, humankind is in big trouble. 

And you may remember in this very column I recently discussed the opinions of experts on the potential threats of artificial intelligence (AI). Congress must deal with those threats. If Congress’s recent response to the budget crisis is any indication, we are doomed, but not at least for 45 days.

But my question here is who thought it was a good idea to give smart machines voices?

Talking robots have been around since the ‘60s TV series “Lost in Space” and probably way before. Who can forget the Model B-9 robot wildly swinging its ‘dryer-vent’ arms and warning, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” 

But it was the HAL 9000 computer that set the standard for intelligent and dispassionate yet sinister AI discourse in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”: (Dave Bowman, trying to re-enter the ship) “Open the pod bay doors, HAL”; (HAL 9000) “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid can’t do that.”

Of course, these were not really the voices of AI. These were actors. But such vocal capability for AI is being built into our electronic world on a daily basis. 

It probably started with the navigation systems that give us driving directions, with that nice GPS lady pleasantly yet firmly telling us where to go. She provides sequential instructions such as: “Prepare to turn left.” . . . “In 500 feet, turn left” . . . “TURN LEFT!” as you move along. Those kinds of instructions are a problem for me, because while traveling at 30 mph and also watching oncoming traffic that includes several large semi-trucks that block my view, I am trying to estimate 500 feet, which always seems farther than it is. And the left turn is camouflaged, being mixed in with driveways and parking lots, not to mention the traffic. I inevitably pass the “TURN LEFT!”, which leads to a restrained “Recalculating!” when in fact the GPS lady really wants to say, “Dammit you foolish human! I told you to TURN LEFT back there!”

Whenever I call my pharmacy to have a prescription refilled, the pharmacy computer already knows who I am. And the voice leads the conversation because it spookily knows which prescription I am calling about. It tells me I only need enter the month and day of my birthday for a refill. It all sounds very natural. And I do not have to say a word, only punch in four digits.

When the prescription is ready for pick up, I receive a phone call from an electronic voice that says, “This is a message for . . .” and then it pronounces my name. It is only then that I finally know I am talking with a machine, because it has to twist its little electronic tongue around that “oe” part of my last name. It also has trouble with the name “Barre,” which it always pronounces as “BAR.” It’s sort of like a little Turing Test. 

The Turing Test, if you are not familiar with the term, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior that is indistinguishable from that of a human. The test was developed by the English computer scientist Alan Turing way back in 1950. The problem with the Turing Test is that AI is now on the verge of being able to outwit it.

Giving voice to our electronic world is spinning out of control. My spouse is a cleaning fanatic, and after much searching, she found a power scrub brush system that made cleaning the shower tile much easier. This thing is rechargeable and has interchangeable brush heads that spin around while you scrub. It also talks to you. Although the device was made in China, it has an accent that comes right out of the “cute” (“Kawaii”) culture made popular by the Japanese (think ‘Hello Kitty’ meets ‘HAL 9000’). It joyfully tells you such information as “Power ready!” “Please press M to start,” and “High speed.” Did I mention this is only a scrub brush!? Why does it need to talk?

And lately, my personal electronic devices have taken to pulling practical jokes on me. Several evenings ago, I was just sitting there, no TV or music, quietly reading a magazine, when my iPad on the table next to me suddenly blurted out in a loud voice, “A NEWS STATION ALERT HAS ARRIVED!” I was startled and almost jumped off the sofa. “Not funny!” I shouted. 

I swear I heard my iPad chuckle!