My Robots: Friend Or Foe?
Robots are all over my life. Some of them I love, some of them I tolerate, and a few I downright hate.
Let me introduce you to my robot army.
First, my favorites. I read a lot, and I’m a long-time dedicated multitasker. Over the years I’ve listened to books on tape, and then some rudimentary text readers. They were pretty lame. But in just the past year or so, they’ve become amazing.
First of all, the voice-to-text intonation is remarkable. It’s easy to forget you’re listening to a machine, rather than a human. The app I use has a ton of voices and languages, and it seems to get more comfortable and well-spoken almost daily.
But the big surprise is the OCR, optical character reader. I can now scan Xeroxed pages that are crooked and wrinkled, and it will get the text right about 99% of the time. So now I’m out, walking in the park and listening to articles, books, and more -- without skipping a beat.
My relationship with text and grammar AI isn’t as seamless. I have spell check on Google Docs, and it’s OK. I also use Grammarly, which is a far more stern taskmaster. My issue with Grammarly is that I have a style to my writing, and there are certain ways I phrase things that Grammarly doesn’t like. So, it corrects me. I don’t accept the changes, and it will again and again not like my writing flourishes.
So these two robots don’t like each other. And I’m caught in the middle. I worry that my writing style will slowly be corrupted until it’s correct, by Grammarly standards, and will read like everyone else’s. I don’t like that.
But the biggest battle I’m facing is between my two biggest robots: Siri and Alexa. Both of them have large roles in my life. Alexa is in charge of all my IOT devices, which in and of itself is a bit of a mess. The battle between light bulb manufacturers, stereo systems, speakers, switches, and plugs creates an almost endless array of repairs and restarts. Right now there is at least one plug that controls lights that I’ve effectively given up on.
But the real issue with Alexa is its business model, or lack thereof. The idea originally was that Alexa would be the voice control that you’d use to order toilet paper or batteries. So, it was expensive to build and free to use.
But now, perhaps most disturbingly, Alexa will come out and tell me my printer needs ink cartridges and offer to order them for me. It’s kinda creepy. How does Alexa know that I have a printer? I didn’t connect them. How does my printer tell Amazon that it needs supplies? It's a relationship I’ve never sanctioned. And when the Alexa robot starts trying to encourage me to spend money on printer ink, I find myself living in a dystopian ecommerce nightmare.
How long before Alexa skips the “asking”’ part and just says, “I noticed you’re out of printer ink, so I charged your credit card, and they’re on the way”? That seems like the only way that Amazon can justify the cost.
Ars Technica pulled no punches in a recent article headlined "Amazon Alexa is a 'colossal failure,' on pace to lose $10 billion this year.” Ouch. Amazon is making noises about cutting costs, but that’s risky too. Because even though I don’t pay for Alexa, I certainly would be pissed if they shut it down. I’ve come to expect that my lights go on when I call their name, and no one is looking to replace that service. I will say that Alexa seems to be getting cranky lately, sometimes ignoring me until I say “dining room lights" three times. Turns out all those engineers are needed to keep the Alexa bot running.
Siri is very different. Alexa is tied to my home. Siri is on the go with me. On my phone, it helps with directions, music, some shopping, and more. The only thing is, it’s slow -- and often seems more confused than Alexa. And, for many requests, it sends you to a website with uneven results. Amazon owns its ecosystem, and Apple’s Siri seems a bit tied down with interactions like a connection to Spotify, which are often flaky.
All of this brings us to the newest and flashiest robot in our world, OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Alexa is absolutely not conversational – but ChatGPT is happy to talk. Often it’s fun and fascinating. The only problem is - it likes to lie. And not little lies, big ones. Fanciful fictions that seem a bit malicious. Kevin Roose at The New York Times had a run-in with ChatGPT’s evil twin, and it didn’t go well, as an analysis by The Guardian’s Jonathan Yerushalmy notes.
When robots set a timer for your pie’s baking time, they’re charming. When they start bugging you about buying crazy expensive printer ink cartridges, they seem to have crossed the line. Yet no matter how you feel about robots and their growing part of our digital lives, they’re here to stay. So just ask Alexa to play nice with Siri -- and hope that they don’t turn against you