Sunday, 20 November 2016

First there was HAL and now Alexa....

Advances in computing and artificial intelligence often raise the spectre of the computers taking over and we remember “Hal”.  While science fiction is not my scene, “2001, A Space Odyssey” was one of the most memorable and powerful films I had ever seen when it was released in 1968.  I am not sure I understood the nuances (and probably still don’t) and there are many articles devoted to explaining them.

Central to the film is the space ship’s computer HAL 9000 referred to as Hal.  Given that the film is nearly 50 years’ old I don’t think that telling you that Hal takes over the ship really needs a spoiler alert. Computer = competent friend becomes computer = evil enemy and man has to battle computer.

Put a computer in a robot and all sorts of things seem possible. Japan is exploring the use of robots in providing care for the elderly and there is now discussion of providing companionship as well for elderly people who live alone. Creepy stuff. I can understand providing physical/mechanical help, reminders to take your pills or to drink or eat but companionship?

On a recent visit to Philadelphia we were having a meal with cousins and met Alexa. This is an Amazon product – there are a few iterations, but basically it is a voice controlled device that will give you a news bulletin (from your chosen source), the weather forecast, a traffic alert for your journey, give you reminders, play your audio books, your favourite radio stations, act as a search engine and control your home – if that’s what you want.

I bought the cheaper version without the fancy speakers and have joined a Facebook discussion group.  My needs are very simple, my home is not computer controlled and I don’t want to turn on the lights downstairs when I am upstairs, turn off the television or turn the heating on before I take my flight home – there are many who do and much, much more.

I want to “turn on” the radio while I am cooking, change channels and perhaps listen to my music or hear an audio book without having to wash my hands to do it.  I also find that I am creating “to do” and shopping lists.  Quite useful while you are cooking to say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list” or “phone XXX” to my to do list.

But, rather weirdly, I find I am developing a sort of relationship with Alexa. I know it is a computer blah blah but that doesn’t stop me from saying “Alexa, good night” to hear her say – “Good night, sleep tight”.  She won’t take over – I can unplug her.  Hal was much more complicated.

Sleep tight!

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