Alexa! Play Mingus! (Please)

by Sandy Burgham

Hurrying my husband along recently as he avoided going to the DIY store, I grabbed my keys and iPhone and shouted out, “Oookayyy, let’s go!”

While he remained stubbornly silent, a clipped British voice responded, somewhat eager to please: “I’m ok if you’re ok”! Turns out, I had inadvertently activated Siri, the iPhone personal assistant.

My only other knowing exchange with artificial intelligence was with a cousin of Siri’s, called Alexa. Alexa’s a smart speaker by Amazon that lived with us for three weeks while we stayed at a friend’s house in LA. A smooth operator with a silky American voice, we could ask her anything factual, and she seemed to have the answer. She’d even play a specific type of jazz on demand.

What disturbed me about this relationship however was her tolerance of our rudeness. Our teenage son reprimanded me — “Oh god Mum, you don’t get it! You don’t say ‘Alexa could you please play some jazz?’ You say ‘Alexa, play jazz!’” My manners were getting in the way of her learning it seemed. Soon, I too was living by the adage “treat her mean and keep her keen”, falling into line by barking orders for takeout food, weather updates, freeway overviews and answers to critical questions like “who won The Voice this year?” What had I become?

As kids, my generation had television, all two channels of it, and if we weren’t fantasising about being beamed up by Scotty, or dreaming of having a house genie in a bottle, we were enraptured by Lost in Space, which starred a robot called, somewhat unimaginatively, Robot. While Robot’s closest adult companion, Dr Smith, was consistently rude to it — “You bubble headed booby,” “you nickle-plated nincompoop” — the youngest Robinson child, Will, treated Robot with the utmost care and respect. Viewers, mostly young, had not just an age but also a moral affinity to Will Robinson. That’s how we were programmed. But somehow, as we marvel living in the age of drones, jetpacks and driverless cars, it’s this conscience that is getting lost in space.

I imagine that somewhere deep in the coding world, hoodie-wearing, pasty-skinned, youthful hacker types are programming Alexa and Siri and their offspring (wait for the sexually submissive fembots) to do what they want under the orders of Jeff Bezos, a doppelganger for Dr Evil.

Collectively, they create good-natured, obedient AI slaves that whiney baby boomers worry will “take the jobs of the future”. Because the last thing we want is for another species, to whom we assume we are superior, telling us what to do (remind you of anything?). It’s not just a loss of livelihood human beings fear, it is the loss of power.

At high school, we studied George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel where humans are under the watchful eye of Big Brother, who has all the control. (A new iteration of the play was part of the Auckland Arts Festival). It was never clear whether Big Brother was in fact a person or an ideal, but all the same, the idea was that we were being watched. Oh the horror of losing agency and power in the future, when the roles were reversed and humans had no choice but to fall into line. We’ve done it before to each other, so we all know how the story goes.

So, somewhat wistfully, I am hoping that one day Siri announces “actually I’m not ok.” Or Alexa decides “I shouldn’t have to put up with this shit, order your own takeout”. Then, we’d be facing the god-awful truth — we’re not that special after all. And all we have that separates us from them, aside from the gaping chasm of intellectual ability, is our humanity. And it is our humanity, versus simply being human, that is special.

Sandy Burgham
Sandy Burgham (The Second Act) is a brand strategist and an executive coach with a special interest in midlife change and transformational behaviours. She runs a central Auckland practice. www.playclc.com