Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 23, 2018

Laughing or snoring?

Recently I asked husband Art to remind me how the voice-activated Google search worked. He opened the application on his smartphone, hit the microphone in the search bar and said, “OK, Google, what’s a fart?”

A pleasing feminine voice responded: “A fart is gas emitted from the anus.”

Then I tried it. “OK, Google, what’s the temperature today?”

The same voice replied, “Today in Manhattan, expect a high of 58 degrees and a low of 39 degrees.”

Many people prefer Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or some other voice-activated virtual digital assistants and leave them running all the time.

VDAs take natural language commands or questions, either in written or spoken form, and try to carry out a task or provide an answer for the user. In a U.S. survey last year, people were asked how they would use a VDA. Statista.com reported 53 percent said to play music, 51 percent to receive weather forecasts and 43 percent to remind them of appointments. Other potential uses included reading email messages or texts, receiving traffic news, operating devices within their homes, ordering goods and receiving sports results.

VoiceLabs, a voice analytics company, said by the end of 2017 there would be more than 30 million voice-activated VDAs in U.S. homes.

And they aren’t just for youngsters. College roommate Deb and her husband have one:

We have a Google Home. Chuck refuses to use it, but I like it. I ask Google mini questions I don’t want to take time to get on the computer ... like how many ounces in a certain measurement or what time a TV show is on ... or the current temp ... or current score of a game. Chuck says he can just use his phone. I like the convenience and hands-free ease to use.

Niece Gabriela and her boyfriend Bernie also have a Google Home.

Bernie programmed “her” and he got the hue lights to match and we can play music and have the lights sync to it so it feels like a nightclub. And we play trivia and ask her about weather too.

Gabriela added, “Sometimes I say she’s stupid and she responds with sassy comments: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have enough information’ or ‘I can’t help with that’ or ‘Stupid, really? You’re the one who can’t ask questions right. Shut up before I send Terminator.’”

The latter refers to a science-fiction movie series in which “The Terminator” - a cyborg assassin - is sent back from 2029 to 1984 to kill a woman whose son is destined to become a savior against machines in a post-apocalyptic future.

Daughter Mariya and her fiancée have two VDAs - one in their living area and one in Mariya’s office. I admit I was charmed - and somewhat startled - when Mariya asked her Echo Dot which was the best - “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” Alexa responded using well-known sayings from both science fiction shows: “Can’t we all just get along? ‘May the Force be with you!’ ‘Live long and prosper!’”

Mariya explained why she has the devices:

I own an Amazon Echo Dot and a Sonos One, both of which connect to Alexa. One of the main reasons that I like them is that it makes my nerdy sci-fi loving heart happy to have a tool similar to the ship’s computers on Star Trek (I even use “computer” as the wake word for my Dot). I’ll tell Alexa “It’s a trap!” and she’ll respond with “Take evasive action! Green Group stay close to holding sector MD-7,” which is a fun call-response from Star Wars. I’ll also ask her what the weather is so I can decide which socks to wear. Or I’ll ask her to play a certain play list of music throughout the house. It’s a neat tool.

However, I’m also keenly aware that we aren’t living in the egalitarian future society from Gene Roddenberry’s
[creator of original Star Trek TV series] mind, and are instead in a capitalist dystopia where our data, voices, and habits are mined and coded so major corporations can better sell to us. I like the technology and machines, but I don’t particularly trust them.

Mariya and I recently attended a presentation, “Asking More of Siri and Alexa,” given by Heather Woods, a professor in Kansas State University’s Department of Communications. Woods is conducting research on artificially intelligent virtual assistants (AIVA) and how they are becoming an increasingly intimate part of people’s lives. She said Amazon and Apple are putting a lot of money into AIVA and are in a race to become the first trillion-dollar tech company.

And those feminine voices are not accidents. Woods said AIVAs speak in such a way to make them “lovely caretakers” who perform stereotypical feminine roles, such as providing companionship and “collecting your life.”

Daughter Katie and her husband Matt do not have one in their home. Matt, a master’s-degree student in cybersecurity, is uneasy about them.

... It’s handing over a large amount of your privacy to a large corporation, and I don’t like the thought of having a machine that is designed to listen to what I’m saying at all times in my house. Internet-of-Things devices also don’t have amazing security either. Did you know you can trigger devices like Alexa using ultrasonic frequencies?

... It is super convenient, I do have to admit that! It’s very tempting. Especially when you think of controlling lights and light levels in your home with only your voice. The female voice is much better than a male one! You can also hook up door locks to those devices though, which could potentially be opened by someone shouting through your window ...

Matt’s comments made me think about a problem recently reported involving Alexa spontaneously laughing in the middle of the night. I think I’ll opt out of using an always-on virtual digital assistant. Art’s late-night snoring can be annoying, but at least it never creeps me out.

Left: Mariya draws attention to her Echo Dot patiently waiting for her command; top-right: Gabriela and Bernie's Google Home makes their apartment seem like a nightclub by controlling the lights; bottom-right: part of a slide from Heather Woods' presentation.

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