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Echo, please

I like robots. I’ve been fascinated by robots of one sort or another for as long as I can remember. I had an imaginary friend, part robot part Animorph, for an embarrassingly long time. We seem to be on a groovy cusp right now. Robots — automata — artificially intelligent devices — are beginning to ooze into our day to day lives, creeping from our phones outward.

A recent episode of Eric Molinksy’s Imaginary Worlds podcast explores the problematic framing of the Master/Slave, Human/Robot relationship. It is an interesting conundrum, but not necessarily a rabbit hole that I want to slide down at the moment. The episode was interesting on many levels, but namely because it put into context why I’m wary of things like the Amazon Echo and Siri.

In my work I strive to eliminate, or at least minimize, anomie. The most straightforward way to do this I’ve found, is to think about the who, how and why of a design more than the what. The what is usually pretty easy, and best left to the business-y types. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, it is rather humdrum at this point. Users first, people not products, etc., etc., blah blah blah.

At its most basic level the Echo is like a screen and a keyboard: it receives user input and outputs structured information. This sort of interface seems optimal for reducing friction between a user and a device, assuming that user can speak and hear. My qualms, however, come from the specifics of the interaction design.

The Echo and similar products ostensibly operate like a command line where there is a set of inputs that the system understands and can interpret. These commands are relatively simple, and easy to pick up. Now, here’s the thing. You can’t talk to an Echo or Siri the way you can talk to a person, likewise, you can’t really talk to a person the way you can talk to an Echo…well, you can…but you’d just be giving orders.

I wonder what the consequences of this sort of interaction could be…granted, I’m tiptoeing might close to the whole video games make folks more violent frame of mind, but, I don’t know, this feels different to me. If I spent all day giving orders to something, I imagine it’d impact my day to day speech, the lexicon would find its way into my vocabulary. As is, I find myself speaking like those around, and using phrases that I wouldn’t elsewise use.

One of the first things I do on a new computer is to setup an alias, alias please = sudo. It is silly, but, I like to ask nicely.

ADDITION: Alternative perspective on similar themes, Alexa: Don’t Screw Up My Kid” by Tim Stahmer, which is itself a response to the Washington Post’s How millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants”.

Noteworthy things that I read, listened to, and watched:

  • Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, I’ve been enamored with Mike Mignola’s art since I first came across it, but never actually did much more than flip through a book here and there. Now that I’ve read volume 1 from cover to cover I’m excited to read more. Love myself some interlibrary-loaned comics!
  • I finished The Long Utopia, third in a trilogy by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. I’m a Pratchett junkie so felt obligated to give this series a go. Generally I enjoyed it, but The Long Utopia got a bit preachy…in hindsight I suppose this oughtn’t be all that surprising judging by the book’s title.
  • A whole heap of Quartz Composer documentation…this isn’t a recommended activity.
  • Finished listening to the episodes to date of the Saga Thing Podcast. I’ve enjoyed it as a quick way to quickly consume Icelandic sagas. One day I want to do a comparative analysis of the sagas and Adventure Time. On the search for a new podcast to binge on, so if anyone has any recommendations, let me know.
  • This morning I read a piece in the Washington Post about growing up with social media, it was intriguing…nothing earth shattering, but the first vignette of the article was particularly poignant as someone who grew up in a similar situation…down to the neighborhood.
  • I like to watch low-stress, visually appealing documentaries…or cartoons. Season two of Chef’s Table on Netflix hasn’t disappointed in the whole visually appealing, low-stress documentary category. Also, Slovenia is mad beauteous.