Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 10, September 1-15, 2018

Alexa, we need to talk…

by Ranjitha Ashok

(Note: The Chief has ruled that ‘Alexa’ needs an explanation, especially for the rotary-dial telephone generation.

According to Wikipedia, Alexa, a virtual assistant developed by Amazon, is a wireless speaker and voice command device with integrated artificial intelligence, capable of voice interaction, music playback, setting alarms, providing weather, traffic, sports, news, and other real-time information….and much, much more.[2] Alexa can also be used as a home automation system.

Still going ‘Huh?’


‘Virtual Assistant’.

That’s the buzz. That’s what’s a-happenin’.

If you felt a vague sense of déjà vu with that line, then clearly, you are of a vintage for whom the presence of a ‘virtual assistant’ will feel like an old science fiction short story you read decades ago has come alive.

And you are not too sure how you feel about this yet-another-tech-marvel.

There you are, self-consciously dipping a very tentative toe into the ‘taking selfies’ whirlpool, (and making a complete hash of it – how come you never realised that one side of your face is higher than the other?!!), when along comes this creature whom you can talk to….and she talks back!!!

And so politely.

She is just yea-high, as they say, less than 10″ tall.

Her name is Alexa, and this ‘virtual assistant” apparently knows Everything.

She tells you what time it is; she plays music for you; she’s efficient with alerts and reminders; she can tell you the weather as it is at the moment in any part of the world; she can answer all ‘G K’ questions, and she can work your house for you.

You have to admit – this technology is pretty…er… ‘Amaz-ing’. (You see what I did there?)

The tech-savvies have taken to her with ease and nonchalance. But for the rest of us, that moment when you first ‘instruct’ her can prove nerve-wracking.

A bit like being at one of those science exhibitions your school used to drag you to, where you filed past various exhibits and prayed fervently your teacher would not choose you to operate something, or “ask-a-question, child….yes, you, standing there giggling with your friends….PAY ATTENTION!!”

This ‘virtual assistant’s’ voice is calm, gentle – and very female. There is a distinctly demure touch to the manner in which she answers every question and is so willing to multi-task at your command, so much so you begin to wonder if there’s something a touch sexist about this?

Apparently, her creators researched, studied, analysed and concluded that most people, of all age groups, respond positively to a soft female voice…especially one, you guess, that gives off those all-knowing vibes, promising to soothe your brow and be the eternal ministering angel.

You find yourself thinking that’s a bit of a surprising stereotype for this century. (And also, incidentally, that it’s a good thing they never met your Grand Aunt Chalk-screeching-across-the-blackboard, who could give a piercing train whistle a run for its money, reducing it to tears in a second.)

Wait, you are told. The creators have picked up on this whiff of criticism, and a more varied, keeping-up-with-these-delicate-politically-correct-times list of voice options is apparently now being offered.

Very wise.

It seems simple, doesn’t it? Ask – and ye shall receive all the answers you seek.

Not really.

Don’t run away with the idea that it’s just about tossing questions at an inert object, which has no other duty but to obey your command – a bit like a genie released from a magic lamp.

There are lessons to be learnt, as with everything else tech-related these days,

the crucial one being: ‘How to phrase your question’.

Especially in a three-pronged interaction which includes you, the ‘assistant’, and your grandchild.

“Doe-a-deer”, the little one demands.

“Sing Doe-a-deer.” you in turn command.

‘She’ answers sweetly that she can’t, and offers you a palliative dose of a few lines.

“Doe-a-deer”, you repeat, tension rising as your grandchild steadily loses faith in you.

Nope ….doesn’t work.

Then, realisation dawns, and you pronounce: “Play Do-Re-Mi”

And Maria dances into the room, while your grandchild rewards you with a grin and a hug.

See? You have to get the question just right.

It gets even more exciting and unpredictable when you command music closer home. Song titles get lost in translation, with the ‘assistant’ politely pointing out that she doesn’t ‘…know what you mean’.

Tempers can then get a bit frayed, and feelings wounded, especially if you are insecure enough to feel that your articulation is being judged.

If your grandchild asks you to play a favourite nursery rhyme, make sure you get the first line right.

You really don’t want to get into a stop-start argument with the virtual world, and you can’t run amok with a hard-bound children’s book, forgetting which era you are now in. Spanking, even what your old teacher used to call ‘non-living beings’, is no longer allowed.

If your grandchild sweetly lisps: ‘Again, pleathe…’, think long and hard.

Because if you say “Loop” (with slightly self-conscious pride at being so familiar with current jargon), you just might rue the day.

Listening to ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ fifty-seven times in a row can be injurious to health. At the least, you may be reduced to trying to take a large bite out of the stuffed penguin, and warning the teddy bear that if he stares at you again, he might lose an ear.

Grandparents getting used to sharing their space with an ‘assistant’ have to put in extra hours of learning to avoid inadvertent unpleasantness.

Like the time you didn’t realise ‘she’ was ‘active’, and used a sentence that included the term ‘rain sounds’ …..resulting in the room being immediately awash with the soft sound of swishing rain. Ideal for meditation, you have since been told, except, in this case, the sound happens to be the official lullaby, and signal, for bedtime. Only problem, it was 5 pm, and you now had to deal with an irate grandchild in complete meltdown, protesting loudly at being bundled off to bed way ahead of time, declaring this betrayal at its worst.

It isn’t just grandparents. Everyone had better be a little careful around an activated ‘assistant.’

You don’t want to come flailing out of bed like an octopus receiving an unexpected prod from an electric eel because an alarm rings unexpectedly at 3am, all because you carelessly used a combination of words that convinced the ‘assistant’ that’s what you wanted.

There have been reports of un-ordered food landing up at the doorsteps of mystified homes, whose residents all along thought dinner tonight was basically of the ‘born again’ variety.

You also have to hope that your particular ‘assistant’ isn’t the one with the glitches. ‘She’ is programmed to ‘crack jokes’ too, apparently, but you’ve heard stories of some of them eerily breaking into unexplained, completely unprovoked, laughter – an image so blood-curdling, you quietly tip-toe right past that out-of-Stephen-King scene.

Of course, such an expanse of skill-based choices can bring out the clown in some people.

Which perhaps explains why you thought it a bright idea to ask ‘the assistant’ what wine goes best with thayir saadam, grinning Cheshirely in the process, only to turn around and find your son gazing at you in a pained, pitying manner, while your daughter-in-law, being kinder, pretended she hadn’t noticed your slight lapse from dignity.

If you are the sort who hyperventilates at smart phones, how are you supposed to deal with ‘smart homes’, under the thumb of the ‘assistant’?

Imagine this. Both generations of children have left for the day…it is peaceful, quiet….but you are scared to pull that foot-rest closer to put your feet up. What if that noise is in itself a trigger, and the next thing you know you are in the middle of an episode of Law and Order?

So much to know, learn, keep up with – and remember. Huge challenges for Vintage-ers.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the ‘virtual assistant’ often says, somehow conveying the message that the fault lies with the questioner, not the questionee.

Well, a whole bunch of us don’t know what most things mean, or how they work, anymore.

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