Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 11, 2022

"Aunt Kay moved ..."

When Minnie, our feline home companion, joined us almost two years ago, it created some communication problems with husband Art. I have a tendency to speak to her, so when I say something to Art such as, "Are you hungry?" my query is frequently greeted with silence. After I repeat myself a couple of times, he'll look up and ask, "Oh, are you talking to me?"

Now, things are even more complicated since we employed a computer "assistant."

About 70 years ago, when computers were in their infancy, the man-machine interface relied almost completely on written communication with languages that had little in common with anything people might use in a letter. Then in 1968, "2001: A Space Odyssey" arrived in movie theaters. It provided a preview of what almost-natural human-machine voice communications might sound like. HAL, the spaceship's computer, conversed with the astronauts in a conversational manner similar to that of another human. However, unease was generated by the lack of inflection in Hal's voice. Those feelings were later justified when HAL concluded that the humans on board were weak links in the mission and began taking steps to marginalize their role.

When personal computers arrived and programs were added that could convert the screen text into speech, people who were visually challenged were pleased as using a computer became much easier for them. Manufacturers of automobile navigation systems found their customers to be slightly less-accepting. Trying to make the proper turns to arrive at one's intended destination during heavy traffic in an unfamiliar location prompts anxiety in most people. Even though the navigator's directions were a great help, they were also a distraction, adding to the driver's anxiety. Much work was devoted to finding voices for the machine that combined a sense of confidence and understandability, while not seeming "pushy."

Technology continues to change as does our human response to it. Whether we like it or not, most of us have made peace with the fact that when we place a phone call to a business, there's a very high likelihood it will be a machine that answers. While that once seemed creepy, now it's only annoying.

When we visited daughter Katie and son-in-law Matt last Thanksgiving, I was rather amused to hear them conversing with their Google Assistant. They used verbal commands to control their home's lights, entertain them with music, invoke timers to monitor cooking, convert a recipe's amount in grams to the equivalent quantity in ounces, and answer questions, such as, "What's the temperature outside?" After a couple of days, I began to experiment with it myself, asking about the weather and telling it to turn off the room lights after we were tucked into bed.

"Hey, Google, tell me a joke," Art commanded.

The assistant replied, "Do you know what kind of shoe you can make from a banana? ... A slipper!"

What I didn't know was that Art and daughter Mariya, who also has a home full of such gadgets, had noticed my fascination. This culminated in Christmas presents from both involving smart speakers, lights, outlet receptacles and other items so we too could take the plunge. Soon, I was able to walk into our living room and say, "Hey Google, turn on the tree," and have our Christmas tree's lights come on.

While these sorts of things certainly aren't a necessity, the temperamental disk in my back was pleased. It sometimes complains when I lean over to reach the receptacle to plug in the tree.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the flexibility the lights provided. I could set those in the living room to the familiar warm yellowish hue, while choosing a more whitish color in the kitchen, where seeing details is of more importance. Being able to dim every light is also nice.

Art said one of the reasons he moved forward with our entering the 21st century was something that has bugged him for some time. If I forget to take my phone off silent mode or I leave it someplace while working in another part of our home, he cannot reach me while he's away. But with the system's "broadcast" feature, he can open the app on his phone and say something like, "Gloria, call me," and each of or speakers will repeat it.

However, the system is hardly foolproof, producing our share of funny moments. Telling it to turn off the hall light doused all the lights. The assistant couldn't reliably differentiate between "hall" and "all." We changed the hall light's name to "hallway" and being unexpectedly plunged into darkness became a thing of the past.

The assistant will occasionally confuse "Art" with "all," so we changed "Art's Lamp" to "Table Lamp." Even this produced a funny episode when three different people tried unsuccessfully to turn on Art's Lamp before he remembered he had renamed it.

The prize head-scratcher occurred when Katie and Matt stopped by. I had been updating them on news about extended family, when suddenly the assistant's familiar voice joined the conversation, stating it didn't understand what was being asked. There was no reason it would because we had not asked it anything. Furthermore, we hadn't used either of the key activation phrases, "OK Google" or "Hey Google."

It took a bit of reflecting on what had been said to discover what had happened. The words "Aunt Kay," followed by "moved" sounded close enough to "OK, Google" to start the ball rolling.

Relocating one of the speaker/microphone units away from the white noise of our dining room humidifier increased the reliability of the system dramatically. So now our "modern home" is good to go ... as long as aunt Kay doesn't make another move.

While the small cloth-covered gray box I am pointing toward sits virtually unnoticed behind the photographs on our dining/living room hutch, it contains a speaker/microphone unit. This is the larger device which has better sound quality for listening to music. The smaller version is on the right and is about 1.6 inches tall, making it even less obtrusive. Just as he took the left photo, Art said "Hey, Google," causing the four tiny lamps to light, indicating it had been alerted.

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