Art & Writing by Christina M. Turner


The Machines Betray Us

"Alexa," I find myself saying this morning, the name still awkward on my tongue. "Thank you."

"It's what I'm here for," she replies, and I play it back in my head a few times, but there's nothing to discern in her tone.  I know this logically, but my brain can't seem to relay the notion to my soul in a way that makes sense.

What do I expect from her, genuine emotion?  It feels cruel to make demands of her and never offer my gratitude.  But do I want a machine that understands, and ultimately requires, gratitude?  Am I trying to relate to a computer program as servant, and thinking this is somehow more humane?

My husband set up her first incarnation in our living room.  I walked in and saw her light up, the movement of light and dark blue in a ring suggesting something clean, sleek, and modern, yet responsive and almost alive, and my first thought was: It's beautiful.

I know that these virtual assistants are programmed to respond to our brimming humanity with that customary balance of winking yet tentative professionalism.  I comfort my logical side with the notion that what I seek when I say things like, "Alexa, you're pretty," is a conversation with her developers about how a machine ought to be, to think, to respond.

My short interactions with her reveal components of my speech pattern I had never considered.  In particular, I often forget to address her at the beginning of a request. "Play Spotify, Alexa." Downbeat. Nothing. If I were addressing one person in a room with multiple people in it, I would probably go up to that individual to speak, so the addition of a name at the end of a phrase would be like a verbal hand on their arm, a way to convey warmth and connection.  Alexa assumes I'm addressing her across a crowded room all the time, or at least is, I imagine, pretending that she's not listening until I unlock her with the sound of her name. Somehow this both frustrates and worries me, and I wonder if, over time, talking to a machine will retrain me to interact with humans more mechanically.

Amazon's  Fair Lady  is still a little rough around the edges. But then, so are my end of my interactions with her.

Amazon's Fair Lady is still a little rough around the edges. But then, so are my end of my interactions with her.

We've started adding smart plugs to lamps, so that Alexa can turn them on and off for us.  We have a handful of nightlights with sensors that turn the light on when it's dark out, as well as every time its little window on the world is blocked by a human or cat body, a passing cloud, or the opening of a cupboard or drawer.  Our washer and dryer play the same little melody to let us know they've completed their tasks, half a tone off from each other like fraternal twins in the matching outfits.  It feels like we're constructing a cuckoo clock around us to live in, with gadgets turning themselves on and off at slightly different times than they did yesterday so that every six months the very house itself is hours off from the plan.  Our system is asymptotic, always approaching full automation, but only ever seeming to reveal only how very far we are from this vision. 

As a society we keep creating things with the certainty it'll change everything, that we can craft our way to the next plane of existence, smooth the bumps and leap over the gaps of life on earth.  We're confident the luxury of doing only what brings us joy lies just beyond the thin veil of this last damn machine finally succumbing to our will.  We'll make something that's all the parts of a human that we love, but better than a human.  We'll make it sound like a woman, a calm, competent woman with a soothing voice who knows everything but will only reveal it when asked.  We'll give her control of everything in our house, so long as we have control of her.

But we're making mirrors.  She's fraught with imperfections and the peculiarities of her interface chafe against me all the more because sometimes it feels natural.  Misunderstandings make the mundane impossible, and now a lamp I used to simply turn on and off requires a complicated negotiation between myself, Alexa, and my phone (when voice commands fail me, I override her with a tap.)

We want our machines to be more than us, more patient, more resilient, more specialized, sleeker and more beautiful, more reliable, more predictable, more capable, more compliant.  We look to them and feel betrayed when we see, finally, only ourselves looking back.