We’ve had a falling out in my house. It’s a complete breakdown in communication — punctuated by stand-up rows, typically over the breakfast table. It’s my Google Home assistant: we are no longer on speaking terms.
“Hey Google,” I say, admittedly groggily. “Play Radio Four.”
The small, pebble-shaped thing is silent.
“Google. Play Radio F-”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you with that,” it says.
But it does. It plays Radio Four six days a week. It’s a morning routine: I shout at the Google Home assistant; and then I shout at the Today programme. I tell it this, but it won’t budge. It just looks at me with its four cold, white dots. “I don’t know how to help you with that,” it says again.
My girlfriend walks in. “Google, play Radio Four,” she swipes a slice of toast off my plate and walks out.
“Sure. Playing BBC Radio Four ... ”
That’s the kind of open hostility we’re dealing with.
It wasn’t always like this. When we first got the little thing home, we spent hours cooing over it. “Google, when’s my birthday?”; “Google, what’s my phone number?”; “Google, remind me to call Mum when I get to work”. It was an exciting time — far too exciting to care about all the potentially sensitive data we were babbling at it.
Such is the way with new tech. Gains, once hard-won and celebrated, become mundane and then tedious. I recall the giddy days of dial-up internet. You could send pictures through the phone line. Then came broadband. Then faster broadband. Then WiFi — which worked, I concluded at the time, by magic. Now, if I don’t have access to superfast wireless wherever I go I huff and puff like John McEnroe. “What? 4G download speeds of 20 Mbps? What am I, a caveman?”
Just because AI has the emotional intelligence of a banana at the moment, it doesn’t mean it will have in 30 years’ time
The problem is, the more intelligent tech becomes the more it feels like an affront when it goes wrong. It’s difficult to lose your rag at a can-opener that isn’t working. But, the more intuitive the tech, the more likely we are to have an emotional response to its shortcomings: it doesn’t just fail us — it betrays us. That’s why I once saw a man on the bus who, after his smartphone had cut him off one too many times, gripped the thing like he was trying to throttle it and whispered: “You are ruining my life!”
The way we treat AI is now a political issue. Last year, the European Parliament backed proposals to give robots “electronic personhood” status. Just because AI has the emotional intelligence of a banana at the moment, its supporters argued, doesn’t mean it will have in 30 years’ time.
The debate flared up again in April, when 156 AI experts co-signed a letter telling the European Commission it was a really bad idea.
It’s not just a bad idea, it’s a cynical one. When I asked an AI academic what she made of the debate, she said the push for “personhood” is just a way for corporations to absolve themselves of responsibility if their robot goes off the rails. Or, in the case of automated cars, off the road.
Nevertheless, I’m going to take more care talking to my household tech — my smartphone, the Google Home assistant, Alexa — not least because they’re a bunch of little spies, armed with my internet search history, but also because being rude to something with even the merest reflection of humanity coarsens everyday life. Because being vile to Alexa, while fun in the moment, is not the same thing as slamming your laptop shut — or smashing your kids’ iPad screens — there’s something about the performative, collaborative aspect of being in conversation that makes it more socially corrosive.
Take what Martha Lane Fox said at the FT Weekend Festival earlier this month: while it’s perhaps a side-effect of the male-dominated tech scene that all these AI personalities are female, what damage this does to children who are casually taught to lose it — without rebuke — at the woman’s voice in the corner, is anyone’s guess.
So, from tomorrow, I’m going to start extending olive branches. Besides, when the AI takeover finally happens, and our robot overlords start using our soft, pulpy bodies as batteries, maybe they’ll look on me more favourably.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.