Friday, October 21, 2011

Talking to Machines


Hello?  Can you hear me?

These days, thanks to a few popular gadgets it has become fashionable to talk to our machines.

Today, it seems that many of the more forward thinking geeks think that we will soon be talking to all of our machines as a matter of course.  Me, I am not so sure.  

Part of my skepticism has to do with the technology, to be sure, but also with the way we expect to interact with the devices themselves.  The problem is not a matter of communication, but one of tone.  

We have unconsciously adopted a manner of speaking to our machines that closely resembles the way that wealthy classes spoke to their servants during the last Gilded Age. That is, they talked at their human subjects, in much the same way that the generation previous to them had talked at their domesticated animals (and slaves), who were--not coincidentally--their source of cheap labor. The good nobles of that fortunate 'golden' era talked at their human herd as if those sentient beings were possessed merely of the rights of the civilized animal classes just below them.  The effect of that talking, however, has long been known to be largely ineffective.

In the case of the 'dumb' animals, this may be a foregone conclusion.  The donkey's obstinance may be obvious to his master but resistance may not so clear in the case of people or machines.  Oh, of course humans were considered capable of absorbing verbal instructions (or admonishments) more easily than a dog or a cow, of course, but although good behavior from such efforts at control can be expected, it is by no means guaranteed. To this end, methods of discipline (both physical and mental) outside of mere speech, have been devised and long employed with some ruthless regularity.

Why?  Well, a good dog, for example, can be expected to figure out just what his master is talking about if it is a simple concept that directly affects the animal and the master has been consistent about beating it only when it is willfully out of compliance. Similarly, a good butler or maid could reasonably be expected to understand the master's wishes even when those wished are incompletely conveyed or altogether absent if they know how they are expected to perform generally. Regular beatings and repeated humiliations have been shown improve the performance of both human and animal classes but that is the subject of another essay on the dark side of Skinnerian discipline.

So why would we want to talk to our machines, anyway? What do we have to tell them? Anything of any importance?  Would we want to tell, say, the television what channel, or show, or team, actor, etc we want to watch? The elevator what floor? The car when to stop? Why?  Really, are buttons so hard to push?   Are handles and knobs really so hard to manipulate?  Do we really prefer talking to moving our hands?  I don't think so.

Imagine a world full of people talking to things. The babble will more than merely double our sound pollution problem. Already we have filled the air of many of our forcibly confined spaces with the sound of people sharing useless bits of information and far too rapidly updating their statuses on cellphones. Do we want to add to that the drone of millions of gadget-holders talking to the devices themselves? 

And do we really want--can we actually stand--to hear the responses? Talk about pollution!  And, all in that babble will be the same pidgin computer speech that can be often modulated but never improved, like some perverse strain of ancient Latin or modern Creole.

Sure, you can give the machine's 'voice' a feminine timbre and cover it with an exotic name but it's still a blow-up doll on a blind date. That's the geek point, really.  Use her and abuse her. She won't complain.  Personally, I think you'd have gotten better service from a cheap whore a hundred years ago than you will from a personal digital assistant on your phone today. Oh well, at least Siri won't give you the clap.

Ultimately, however, it's just pointless.  Speaking, or rather, talking at our machines, will not have the same effect as our forebears speech had upon the previous two lowest classes in American society.  This is because machines cannot be sufficiently beaten nor humiliated into improved responses and reactions the way that live beings can. 

Machines are infinitely indifferent to our desires, whether they be expressed as subtle hints or direct threats. They innocently fail to understand without fear of consequence. They say: Break me. Dash me to the ground. Grind me under your heel. Run me over with your golden carriage.  I don't care. The apathy of the machine is pure and incorruptible because it cannot be made to care about it's creator. 

Unlike Frankenstein, we are in love with our creation but it will never love us back.

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