Have you met Alexa? No? Then let me introduce you. She’s the offspring begat by Amazon to be your very own personal assistant. She joins the company of other disembodied voices created to be at your service: Siri, Cortana, and Miss Google Assistant, who, as far as a know has not yet been granted a Christian name.
My first encounter with Alexa came as a bit of a shock. I was enjoying a visit with my extended-family daughter when suddenly I heard said daughter call out in a commanding voice “Alexa, turn off the light.”
I was startled. First of all, she’s very polite, so the absence of the word “please” was somewhat surprising. And even more questionable than her sudden lack of manners was “Who is Alexa?”
As far as I knew, the only people at home were she, I, and her three children, none of whom are named Alexa. Perhaps one of her daughters was having a play date? I inquired and was told no, there were no friends about.
So who was this Alexa? My mind wandered to places heretofore never considered. Was she a newly discovered love child conceived during a pre-marital tryst? I’m sure we would have been informed of this. Eventually. And had she come to stay for good?
So I timidly asked, almost afraid of the answer, “Who’s Alexa?” My XFD grinned at me, and pointed toward her kitchen. “Oh, a new housekeeper,” I thought. But when I looked, there was no one there. Had the strains of raising three kids finally gotten to her? Was she retreating into a world of imaginary friends?
Needless to say I was quite relieved when further probing into her mental state revealed nothing wrong. And in fact, Alexa was a small black tower sitting on her kitchen counter.
That’s how I learned that Alexa was yet another device to help you run your otherwise stupid and disorganized life. Like Siri, Cortana, and whatshername from Google, she will tell you when your roast beef is cooked to the desired temperature, remind you about a doctor’s appointment, tell you who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, and play your favorite song. You merely have to command her with your voice.
While I’m not categorically opposed to the idea of these virtual “assistants,” always at one’s beck and call, just waiting to do one’s bidding, I am somewhat perturbed that they are all female!
Women of the Movement – should we be concerned? Have we come this far in our quest for equality only to be recharacterized as subservient by a quartet of technological Stepford Wives? Is this a reiteration of “Sweetheart, get me a cup of coffee,” or “I’ll have my girl call your girl?” The retrograde male fantasy of the perfect secretary? I think this deserves some serious consideration.
I’m not sure who are the biggest users of this new wave of artificial intelligence, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s men. How comforting to have a mechanical Mommy to wake you up in the morning, and remind you to take your umbrella because rain is predicated later in the day. Too bad it can’t send you off to work with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a juice box, but perhaps it’s an idea being pursued by R&D as we speak.
I wouldn’t mind having a mechanical personal assistant, a compliant and loyal helper. He would have a soothing, sexy voice that might generate fantasies of movie stars such as Paul Newman, Sean Connery, or Denzel Washington. Viggo Mortensen or George Clooney would also be welcome in my kitchen to remind me that my meat loaf was ready.
Or perhaps I might borrow some pages from literature. Remember the gardener from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover?” What would be wrong with a virtual Oliver Mellors who, in addition to assisting with the outdoor chores, might consider slipping off his work boots and stepping inside to awaken me.
And if Mellors wasn’t available, I could always engage the playful cabana boys from “Night of the Iguana.” There were other things they were good at, besides checking the ph balance in the pool. And I do love the cuisine. And the music. They would whisper Mexican jokes in my ear, little chistes. And they would be understanding and tolerant of my high school Spanish and the fact that I only conjugate in the present tense.
My guess is that virtual assistants are here to stay. Like all new technology, they have created a need we never knew we had. But should we be wary that one day they will be smarter than the master (or mistress), and devour us? I’m reminded of the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The apprentice enchants a broom to haul water for him, but then cannot stop it. So we, too, may find ourselves in over our heads.
But I will leave that worry for another day. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pursue the idea of creating yet another disembodied voice, only this one with the resonance of a houseman. I even have a name. I shall call him Fabio.