For Christmas, our daughter Katie gave me an Amazon Echo Dot, better known as Alexa.
“Katie is no longer my favourite,” her mother announced.
It’s not so much that Deb hates gadgets; it’s that she hates gadgets with me.
She claims – with scant evidence, I might add – that I become absorbed, nay, obsessed with my devices. True, there are times when I can be found with my cell phone, iPad and laptop all in front of me, but that’s because different devices offer different features. For example, my Echo? Pretty lights!
Another example: I learned I could turn my Echo into a Bluetooth speaker for the kitchen, something I’ve wanted for some time. So what if I disappeared into a bubble of research on Christmas Day trying to figure out how to do just that? I think everyone agrees that it’s nice to have music in the kitchen not from a tiny sub-par iPad speaker with virtually no range but from a slightly larger sub-par speaker with virtually no range.
One of the things Deb doesn’t like is when, say, in the middle of a dinner, I whip out my phone to answer a burning question, like the one Abby had the other night regarding the nutritional value of red peppers. “Why do we need to know right now?” Deb would normally ask. “Because we can,” is of course the correct answer, but the correct action, you’ll surely understand, is to put the phone away to save my marriage.
But with the Echo, I just yelled across the kitchen, “Hey, Alexa! What’s the nutritional value of red peppers?” And then we were subjected to a computer-generated grocery list of potassium, calories, sodium, etcetera per 100 grams of red pepper, which wasn’t really the answer we were looking for but all knowledge is useful, right? Even knowledge that loudly interrupts dinner?
Alexa can do all sorts of things. It can give the weather, play games, make appointments, make lists, make my wife roll her eyes. You can even program it to control other devices if you have a smart home. Of course, I don’t have a smart home; I have a barely-made-it-through-9th-grade home. But if I did, that would be cool.
What I could do is program it so that when Deb comes down for her coffee, Alexa would say, “Good morning, Debbie. Don’t forget to marvel at how handsome your husband is today.” Next question for Alexa: What’s the name of a good divorce lawyer?
Yes, it sometimes feels odd to have this thing talking to me, but I have to remind myself that it only seems intelligent, just like Siri, the voice of Apple, or Bella, the smelly dog of our house. In fact, I decided to put all three to the test:
What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?
Alexa: The meaning of life depends on the life in question. 42 is a good approximation. [Clever Douglas Adams reference, Alexa.]
Siri: To think about questions like this.
Bella: [no response]
Who put the bomp in the bomp-shu-bomp-shu-bomp?
Alexa: Hmmm, I don’t know that one.
Siri: Who was that man, I’d like to shake his hand, he made my baby fall in love with me
Bella: [no response]
Who is smarter, Alexa or Siri?
Alexa: I like all AI.
Siri: Interesting question, Ross.
Bella: [no response]
Is there a God?
Alexa: People have their own views on religion.
Siri: My policy is the separation of spirit and silicon.
Bella: [no response, though clearly I am her god]
You want to go for a walk?
Alexa: Hmm, I’m not sure.
Siri: I have everything I need already.
Bella: [reluctantly sits up in chair where she’s been sleeping all morning and waits until we produce the leash to ensure we’re not bluffing]
Who’s a good girl?
Alexa: Here’s what I found in Wikipedia. The Good Girl is a 2002 American black comedy-drama film directed by…
Siri: Hmm, I just don’t get this whole gender thing.
Bella: [enthusiastic wagging]
Do you want a treat?
Alexa: While I appreciate great food and drink, my good taste is better reflected in the company I keep.
Siri: I have everything I need in the cloud.
Bella: [further enthusiastic wagging]
War, what is it good for?
Alexa: Absolutely nothing
Siri: Absolutely nothin’
Bella: [licks self]
Conclusion: Apps and dogs have their pluses, but humans remain the superior intellect. Then again, you just read this entire piece, so…