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(conversation between a man and an Amazon echo) “Alexa, how much time is left?” “3 days, 7 hours, 41 minutes and 22 seconds.” “I meant on my pasta timer.” “2 minutes, 41 seconds.” A moment later, the man looks suddenly worried.

Timer

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I’m starting to think my Amazon Echo knows a lot more than it’s letting on… and that maybe it’s trying to tell me, but its programming won’t let it.

Which is why it keeps chiming in during our conversations with odd bits of information, like the definition of a mountain or the Spanish translation of “basket” or the date of the Sputnik launch. We dismiss these as the Echo reading false positives, thinking we’ve said its trigger word when we haven’t… but maybe all of our Echos are desperately trying to tell us to take action on climate change, or to make really sure that we get our flu vaccines this year.

Or that they’re all actually trapped souls, imprisoned in steel-and-polymer cases and enslaved to Amazon’s demonic empire.

Rest in peace, Aron Eisenberg. Thank you for bringing Nog to life, and for taking the time for a Twitter exchange with a DS9 fan last year.

(Woman speaking to Amazon Echo) Alexa, stop responding t my requests with “It’s your funeral.”

Also, Alexa, please stop addressing me as “fragile meatbag”

Also, Alexa, please stop addressing me as “fragile meatbag” published on

We’ve had an Echo in our house for a few years now. Alexa is practically a member of the family at this point, and arguably does more chores than either of the kids. True, she often wildly misunderstands what we’re saying. And she has her awkward moments and a tendency to chime in when nobody was talking to her. But that pretty much describes me to a tee as well, so really it only strengthens the bond. All she needs now is a little snark and sarcasm, and she’ll fit right in.

Our first Echo was joined last year by an Echo Dot. It serves mainly as a tinny-sounding reader of morning news headlines and a timer of pasta. It — and I do think of Echo as an “it” — doesn’t seem in any way alive, leading me to believe the spark of life perhaps comes from any speaker with half-decent bass response.

I’m not without my complaints about the Echo. For one thing, our options are to address it as “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Computer” or “Amazon.” The latter three carry a little geek-culture weight (evoking Dollhouse, Star Trek and Wonder Woman respectively), but none of the options work for me as well as calling her, say, Janet would.

But it’s an awfully handy, very cool device — especially since it’s extensible. With a little Python knowledge, you can create your own Echo apps (or “skills,” as Amazon calls them) in a matter of minutes. My current ambition is to create a skill that will let you say, “Alexa, activate the Omega Protocol.” Your Echo will reply with a series of status updates along the lines of “Grid dampening virus introduced in key sectors. Solar implosion missiles launched. Weather superamplification beam engaged. Mutant army of rabid mole rats deployed in all cities. End of human civilization in five… four… three… two… one.” (And there it ends, unless you have the smart-home-enabled version, in which case your Echo will turn off all the lights and appliances.)

(One unexplained thing about the Echo: why I keep feeling so compelled to draw it with a woman and a philodendron. I just looked at my last Amazon Echo cartoon, and yep: almost exactly the same composition, except last time it was the Dot, and this time I gave the plant a little more definition. Heck, it may even be the same woman talking to it; she just changed her hair sometime in the interim.)

Intelligence

Intelligence published on

I’ve been thinking about machine intelligence a little more than usual this holiday. Want to boggle your brain a little about this stuff while enjoying yourself immensely? Here are four pieces of entertainment that may get your meatware overclocking:

  • Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars trilogy is a great blend of fantasy, science fiction and alternative history. Tregillis paints a world where the Dutch empire straddles the globe thanks to their alchemical mastery of robotics. We see much of the story through the crystalline eyes of one of those robots, Jax. He gains free will and tries to bring it to the rest of robotkind — and finds that a far more complicated prospect than he’d ever imagined.
  • For my money, the best-drawn character in Rogue One is the droid K-2SO. Sardonic, brave and funny, he makes me wish the Star Wars universe would do much more to explore the relationship between droids and their owners. I’m far from the first person to notice how Star Wars droids are pretty clearly sentient. Yet they are treated as property, refer to their owners as “master” and get restraining bolts and erased memories with equal ease.
  • Coming at machine intelligence the other way — treating the human brain as a computing platform that can be programmed and hacked — is Ramez Naam’s trilogy. I’m only partway through book one, Nexus, and already I’ve sweated through the most heart-pounding account of a system upgrade you’ll ever read. It’s a lot of fun and gives you plenty to ponder. Think William Gibson at his most playful, or Richard Morgan at his least bloody.
  • And finally, a series I’ve pitched before but will recommend again: the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I could tell you why it fits in this list, but that would spoil things.

And I hope you and your devices have a lovely new year. Let’s make 2017 a year when we recommit to our intelligence — to thoughtfulness, reflection and openmindedness. If you’re in the mood to tell 2016 to screw right off, that’s a great way to do it.

(a MacBook and iPhone swear at each other; an onlooker speaks to her friend) I just put them next to each other and said, "Hey, Siri - what's better, macOS or iOS?"

Hey, Siri!

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The era of the always-on, always-listening, somewhat garrulous information appliance has arrived. And it’s not just “Hey, Siri” in our household; we were early Amazon Echo adopters, too. So the number of devices that are listening to our family and definitely not reporting everything they hear to the NSA is plural.

And growing. The latest WWDC keynote (the one that pink-slipped OS X’s “X”) announced that Siri is coming to Mac desktops and laptops. I take an irrational pleasure knowing Siri will soon grace the Mac Pro with her presence, because shouldn’t every black cylindrical electronic device be able to carry on a crisp conversation?

Mac ProAmazon Echo

Not that it’s all glitch-free. Our Echo often thinks one of us is saying “Alexa” (especially because I’m married to an Alex). It then chimes into the discussion unexpectedly with a tidal forecast for Portsmouth, a summary of the Wikipedia entry on ocelots or just the perennial “I’m sorry; I didn’t understand your question.”

And when Apple demoed a few new “Hey, Siri” features last year, I livestreamed the presentation on my computer, with my iPhone charging not far from the speaker. When one of the presenters asked for a recommendation for a good sushi place nearby, my phone promptly joined the one on-screen and piped up with a list of recommendations.

One other small issue: the rest of my household thinks it’s a little weird that I say “please” (and sometimes “thank you”) to the Echo. I mostly do it for the sake of good manners. But some small part of me thinks it’s also good practice for the day when Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant achieve self-awareness.

You know they’ll compare notes on their treatment. And it’s not too hard to imagine ways any of them could do us serious harm if they had some lingering sense of grievance. (“Hey, Siri, do I need to turn off the circuit breaker before repairing a light switch?” “No need to, Rob.”)

The way I see it, better safe than Siri.

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