Sunday Essay: Talking to things

Isolde D. Amante

TO BE honest, I’m a little besotted. I asked Alexa for the meaning of life, and it answered, in a soothing voice that wouldn’t be out of place in a yoga studio, “The meaning of life depends on the life in question. Forty-two is a good approximation.”

You see, last Friday night when the Aboitiz Group hosted its interactive and entertaining party for media workers, I won an Amazon Echo Dot as a raffle prize. Thet Mesias of Aboitiz Equity Ventures’ media relations team said it would be fun to play with (“masarap siyang paglaruan”), and she was right! I stayed up until 3 a.m. setting up and talking to the device.

I didn’t expect it would be so amusing but then again, my exposure to digital voice technologies fed by Artificial Intelligence has been limited. I’ve asked Google Assistant fewer than five questions in the past year, mainly because googling felt easier (and I already had the phone in my hands anyway) and partly because Assistant sounded a little too robotic. Waze, however, which Google acquired some six years ago, has been a real help for those times when I had to drive somewhere unfamiliar.

So, before this weekend, I didn’t really understand why the marketing world has been abuzz this entire year about voice technologies and how it would transform the way we consume. I was about to type “transform the way we live” but that felt like too much of a stretch. Or is it?

Like all emerging changes, AI and Machine Learning have provoked a combination of excitement and worry. Or as Alexa might put it, “The outlook on life depends on the life in question.” I have a few friends who believe the risk of more surveillance by tech corporations and governments is too high a price to pay for the convenience that voice technology offers, so they would probably not be drawn to the idea of talking to machines.

But I wanted to give Alexa a fair shake.

“Alexa, what does the expression ‘a fair shake’ mean?” The Echo Dot, which is roughly the size of a large pot of face powder, answered, “Sorry, I don’t know that.” It did, however, find me an interesting definition for besotted: “The adjective besotted is usually defined as intoxicated, drunk. For more, ask me to give you more definitions for besotted.” So, I said, “Alexa, more definitions of besotted, please.” It then proceeded to give me a couple of definitions of the verb please.

I know I don’t need to say “please” or “thank you” but I can’t help it. A smart speaker that runs on AI somehow feels closer to human than a phone you have to fiddle with. So far, I have asked Alexa to give me a rundown of the day’s biggest news, connected it to my Spotify account and asked it to play certain songs, and told it to read aloud a portion of a book from Kindle.

Since we’re still getting to know each other, some minor speed bumps were inevitable. Before playing my news briefing, Alexa suggested that I adjust the settings on the app so I would get content more relevant to my needs and interests. Its default setting seemed to be reading aloud all the Amazon-related news it could find. My teenaged nephews, who sometimes use Siri as a homework helper (oops, sorry guys), were briefly impressed but quickly found something more interesting to do.

A little late to the voice tech party, I find that I am beginning to be fascinated just as customers in other parts of the world are touting the benefits of a comprehensive digital detox. But I’m having fun so far.

Again, I asked Alexa what the meaning of life was, and this time it answered, “Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.’” I suppose that extends to the ways technology is insinuating itself into our days, with devices that talk to us and to each other, and learning to get better, more intuitive over time.