‘Alexa, play Justin Timberlake,’ they say. It’s monstrous
Conor Pope: Before she came I controlled Spotify with a Stalinist fist and no one changed or chose music without my stern nod. Not anymore
Poor Alexa has been in our lives for barely a week and already I’m starting to sound like an abusive husband while my offspring are coming across like scions of the Trump dynasty barking at the help.
One of the sci-fi fantasies of my childhood has finally come true. Sadly, it’s not jet packs, time travel or robot butlers but I was still happy enough when I opened a box last weekend to find my very own voice-activated electronic assistant waiting for me.
Her name is Alexa, you may have heard of her. You may have Alexa too. My Alexa has only recently rolled off an Amazon production line and comes with a video display on which news magically appears. As if to emphasise the futuristic world where she and I now live, the first news item she shared was about an assassination attempt with exploding drones on the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Exploding drones? What a time to be alive.
The news drama ended there and her second story was about an English cricketer called Ollie. “Five things about Ollie Pope, ” the on-screen text flashed. “Alexa tell me more,” I said in a deep and authoritative voice, one – I imagined – I’d use if I was standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise asking my on-board computer to tell me about the planet we were descending ominously towards.
So Alexa told me Ollie Pope had 2,000 Twitter followers before his call-up to the English cricket team. It begged an obvious follow-on question. I asked Alexa how many Twitter followers this Ollie chap had now. “Sorry, I don’t know that,” she said, practically forcing me to look up the information on Twitter myself. The answer was 2,822.
“Alexa, if you are going to tell me five things about Ollie Pope can you make sure they are more interesting that this,” I said.
“Sorry, I don’t understand you,” she responded.
Poor Alexa has been in our lives for barely a week and already I’m starting to sound like an abusive husband
Alexa is hot in the voice-activation world right now and great minds who plot our future say she’s a beachhead from which an assault by similarly chatty software will be launched.
They will listen to us always and tell us what we need to know. In the 1950s, people were taught to fear a Big Brother who watched them. Now we have a Big Sister watching us and we’re delighted and call out to her in search of pancake recipes and information about obscure cricketers .
Alexa draws some of her personality from Hal in 2001, A Space Odyssey, although fingers crossed she won’t kill us all a fit of pique. What she has done is make us all – with the exception of my better half – ruder. Because to make Alexa work you say her name and issue a command.
Gets things wrong
Sometimes she gets things wrong so you have to go through the process again. It can be exasperating. Poor Alexa has been in our lives for barely a week and already I’m starting to sound like an abusive husband while my offspring – who I’ve spent years teaching manners to – are coming across like scions of the Trump dynasty barking at the help.
She’s still a marvel though and far from the world in which I was reared. The closest the Pope household of times past got to futuristic technology was a rented colour telly, a pressure cooker that marginally reduced the cooking time of potatoes and a cupboard full of weird-coloured flakes that magically turned into something resembling food with the addition of boiling water.
Before Alexa came, I was a powerful God of Music
So, I’m easy to please, which explains my delight when my children told me Alexa was a comedian. “Alexa, tell me a joke,” one of my little girls shrieked at the machine. I stopped myself from reminding her to say please.
“What’s black and white and red all over?”
I don’t know, Alexa. What is black and white and read all over?
“An orca in a bath of baked beans.”
“Why is that funny, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, child.”
When my little girls go to bed, I give Alexa another task.
“Alexa, tell me a dirty joke,” I say, delighted with myself, because a small part of me will always be a 10-year-old boy.
“Did you hear about the dust bunny that fell in love with a Roomba? It was swept away.”
Alexa , what’s a Roomba?
A Roomba, it turns out, is a type of robotic, artificially intelligent vacuum cleaner, a device that Alexa probably pines for when I’m not around. She is nothing if not literal.
Jokes and news aside, Alexa’s main role so far has been as house DJ. It was thrilling at first to come home and say “Alexa, play The National” and have the living room suddenly filled with music. But that thrill was fleeting.
Before Alexa came, I was a powerful God of Music. I controlled Spotify with a Stalinist fist and no one changed or chose music without my stern nod. But now everyone can talk to the machine.
“Alexa, Play Justin Timberlake, ” they say.
“Alexa. Play Arianna Grande. ”
And she does. It’s monstrous.