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Rise of the machines
While we work on new reviews and wait for the news season to restart, Slarek irritiably muses on why the science fiction dream of being able to converse with machines just isn't working out the way he had once hoped |
25 December 2014

It's long been a mainstay of science fiction literature and cinema that we would one day converse with machinery, talk to computers with programmed personalities (usually those of English butlers) that can respond to even colloquially phrased questions. But as this interaction with machinery slowly comes to pass, I find myself increasingly irritated by the attitude of this increasingly pushy and intolerant technology.

It all began for me when electronics companies decided it would be fun to have the front panel on their video recorders that displayed the word "hello" when you switched them on and "goodbye" when you shut them down. For reasons I cannot completely pin down, this annoyed the hell out of me. "Hello" is, after all, a very human greeting, at worst no more than an acknowledgement of another person's presence, at best a generic precursor to social interaction. A video recorder is no more aware of my existence than the White Cliffs of Dover are of Jupiter's moons, and I was never going to start a conversation with the damned thing, except to shout obscenities at it if it chewed up the videotape. Remember videotape? No? Oh well. I guess what really bugged me is that some office-based designer or techie or marketing toad thought that adding this feature would somehow make me feel warmer about this otherwise coldly functional box of electronics and whirring mechanics, perhaps even put an appreciative smile on my face. It didn't. To me this is equivalent to getting a generic Christmas card from a sales company that you once had a single dealing with, self-promotional piffle that is sent out in the deluded belief that receiving it will makes us think they care about us as individuals. Yeah, right.

The first time I was able to type something and have a computer say it out loud (it was a Commodore Amiga, in case you're interested) I'll freely admit that it unleashed a very juvenile side of me and had me typing swear words and offensive phrases just to hear them fed back to me in a robotic voice. In my defence I should point out that my older and more mature girlfriend of the time (and her daughter, as it happens) did exactly the same when they realised what this new machine could do. A few years later my work colleagues and I discovered that our new PowerMac could also read out text, and also that we could type in a series of insults and program it to select one at random and say out loud if there was an error. Oh, the fun. This amused us for about two days. Then we forgot all about it until a student came in to complain that the computer that we'd absent-mindedly returned to a media classroom had just called him a fat bastard.

By this point in the development of home computers, both Apple and Windows based machines were also regularly talking to us through pop-up text boxes, usually to inform us that something wasn't working or demand that we do something to make things work properly, like plug in a cable that had wiggled a little bit loose or put Letter sized paper in a printer that only handles A4. Annoying though this was, at least it was in English. When more serious errors occurred, the machines would abandon this attempt to appear human and revert to being extensions of the programmers' egos. How wonderful it was to have the computer stop working and a window spring up, blocking your access to the desktop, and inform you that your machine has become victim to error 1006f, or that the system couldn't find 5 nybbles in 200 tries. For the record, I didn't invent that.

It was also around this time that Apple also started to incorporate a degree of primitive voice recognition into their operating system, which acted as an encouragement to converse with machines that were in no way sentient and actually had a poor understanding of, well, just about any language you care to name. We were admittedly intrigued by the novelty factor, but making the thing work was a tortuous task, one that required you to record the name of the program that you wanted the system to launch by stating it over and over with the sort of slow and exaggerated diction that lazy British and American tourists use when attempting to communicate with non-English speaking locals while abroad. Our personal favourite was the then standard for desktop publishing, Quark Express, a name that our early PowerMac just could not understand. To launch the program this way you had to hold a round plastic microphone close to your mouth and repeat its name ad infinitum in a wide variety of accents and pitches, and usually change the pronunciation to "Kwarkspress" before the damned thing would cooperate. Or you could just double click on its icon with the mouse. We soon settled for that.

It was a while before I started to get the sense that instead of asking me to do something, computerised technology was starting to give me orders. It began with my sister's satellite navigation system. I don't drive much (I don't own a car, which restricts me a bit) and am cursed with a truly atrocious sense of direction – if I had to drive anywhere new then sooner or later I'd get hopelessly lost. Before going on such a journey I would study maps intently and write out directions in large type on sheets of A4 paper that I would glance down at and toss aside when each stage of the trip was complete. It rarely helped much – it was all very well knowing that there's a turning somewhere up ahead, but if it didn't match the picture I had of it in my confused brain then I'd often miss it because I was looking for something completely different. The first time I used a sat nav I was genuinely astonished and more than a little thrilled. It got me to where I wanted to go with none of the usual drama and in a fraction of the time. Thus from that point on I borrowed it every time I was required to go on a journey of more than a few miles. It never occurred to me in those early days that the recorded voice with which the sat nav delivered its directions was telling me what to do rather than offering useful advice – as its name suggests, it effectively fulfils the very same job that a friend sitting in the passenger seat armed with a map book would do, alerting you to where you need to turn off, bear left, or ‘craws' the roundabout. But with sis unwilling to cough up for the regular updates, the sat nav maps did not take account of any new roads and altered layouts, and that's when I began to get the sense that I was being nagged, told to turn around at the first available opportunity when I knew there was no need, and pestered to take turnings that this foolish machine failed to realise were no longer there.

But the first talking machines to really get on my tits were those self-service tills that you now find in supermarkets that put cashiers out of work but which we speed shoppers end up using anyway to avoid being stuck behind a string of bulging trolleys and dozy trolley pushers. Like the sat nav, these tills are programmed with a friendly but authoritative female voice, but while I might occasionally bark at the sat nav to shut up, I regularly catch myself arguing with these electronic cashiers. "Please place the item in the bagging area," it snootily demands after I've done just that. "It's in the bloody bagging area!" I'll spit out just loud enough to attract concerned looks from fellow customers and shop staff alike. And next time you use one, assuming you ever do, note how carefully that word ‘please' is rationed and what it tends to imply: "Please place the item in the bagging area" [as I know you're trying to steal it]; "Please wait for assistance" [because you've done something wrong, haven't you, puny human]; "Please take your items" [as we haven't got all day, slowcoach]. When it wants your money, that faux politeness is nowhere in sight. "Insert cash," it orders, "or select payment type." Do it. Do it now. Pay up, peasant, and quickly. To add insult to injury, the machines at my local Asda repeat this demand twice in a row, hammering the message home for customers it presumes are too dumb to get it the first time around.

But I guess it's inevitable that the thing has really got my back up in recent months is down to the operating system of the computers I use both at home and at work. I don't know if Windows has something similar, but Apple's OSX has something that rather grandly calls itself the Notification Centre. It does have its uses, the primary one in my case being the regular reminders it spits out for you to back up your hard drives, which I know I would forget to do otherwise. It also informs you when there's a software update available, but unlike the equivalent on the older operating systems, this one takes a sternly bullying attitude to their download and installation. Basically a window appears, usually when you're in the middle of doing something that could do without such a distraction, and informs you that there's a software update and asks you – and this is the bit that really bugs me – whether you intend to install it now or tonight. And those are the only options. There's no "I don't wish to install this particular update, thank you very much" button or even an "I'm busy and since this update requires a restart I'll do it in a few days" one. Oh no. It's not just informing you there's an update, it wants you to bloody well act on it now, and if you don't then it wants an assurance that you'll damned well do it later this very same day. It's like having a Victorian era guardian who gives you a chore to complete when you're busy with others, then stands over you asking repeatedly and irritably, "So are you going to do it? Are you? Are you? Are you? When? Now? Are you going to do it now? Are you? No? Then what about tonight? Are you going to do it then? Are you? Are you?" It's got to the point that when that particular notification appears I actually get angry and start swearing loudly at the screen. Suddenly, that comparatively innocuous ‘hello' that popped up on the front of my old VHS machine and every damned DVD and Blu-ray player I've owned since doesn't seem quite so annoying. But look where it led...

Of course, the most famous recent innovation in the area of supposed communication between man and machine is Siri, an iPhone application that combines voice recognition with a search engine and a supposedly more human sounding version of the electronic personality that insulted our student all those years ago. When this was first announced I absolutely dreaded its arrival. Already train journeys were being made intolerable by ghastly people discussing their private lives into mobile phones in voices loud enough for everyone else in the carriage to collaborate on a wickedly accurate sitcom about them. Now I was faced with the prospect of having these same people asking unnecessarily noisy questions of the phone itself, probably in that terribly phonetic way that they address all those they suspect of not being able to easily understand them. Somewhat curiously, however, this has never happened. Despite becoming the subject of witty mockery in an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Raj becomes romantically involved with Siri, a concept that was later also at the heart of the Spike Jones movie Her, I've never once actually heard anyone actually using Siri. And I mean, for anything. Maybe this is a particularly British thing. Maybe Americans and Germans and Norwegians are barking questions at their iPhones in droves. But if us Brits are doing it, we're doing it either quietly or when we're alone or in the company of tolerant and vaguely amused friends. Or maybe they're only doing it when I'm not around. I do have that effect. Then again, maybe it's possible that we just don't want to broadcast to everyone within earshot that we'd like to search for information on frilly underwear or genital warts or Justin Bieber. Maybe we actually feel a little ridiculous talking to what we know full well is just a small box full of electronics and LEDs. Maybe, just maybe, we're not quite as comfortable as we once thought we might be about the idea of imbuing machines with the characteristics of humans and conversing with them as if they were our friends. After all, if science fiction cinema has taught us anything about super-smart computers, then it's that no matter how polite their delivery, sooner or later they're going to make decisions that are in their best interests rather than yours. Open the pod bay doors, HAL.