There’s something at once remarkable and chilling about the level of automation technology at our fingertips these days.
With a few voice commands, it is possible to open or close the curtains, lock or unlock the door, turn on the water, warm or cool the house or take care of any number of other basic tasks. These are technologies available to us right now, and not simply in the development stage such as fully self-driving cars.
The level of computer-assisted technology today seems like the science fiction stories from earlier decades, where advanced machines (“robots” in stories from the 1950s) would take over mundane tasks, acting as butlers and allowing people more time for leisure activities.
I’m fine with the concept. Technology can and should be used to improve our quality of life.
But the other day, a demonstration of some of this automation technology left me feeling uneasy.
One could say, “Siri, turn on the reading light,” and a light near a chair would come on. Or, by saying, “Alexa, turn off the TV,” the television would be turned off.
The technology was fine, but the human names for the voice control systems were unnerving.
Siri, the name of Apple’s virtual assistant, is also a name in the Swahili language, meaning “mystery” or “secret.” It is also a shortened form of the Scandinavian name Sigrid, which means “beautiful victory.” And its sound is close to that of names like Sara and Sherri.
Alexa, the virtual assistant used by Amazon, shares its roots with the name Alexandra, a Greek name meaning “defender of the people” and a variant of the name Alexander.
In both these cases, human names are used. And in both cases, these human names are needed in order to activate the technology.
Using a name to use voice-activated technology is disturbing. By doing this, people are addressing machines the way they would normally address a sentient being such as a person or a beloved pet.
While computers are sophisticated devices, they are not living or sentient beings. One seldom gives a toaster a name like Boris or a lawn mower a name like Gertrude.
Computers in a network or multiple computer hard drives may have names, but these are to identify them in the system. It’s possible to have a computer on a network called “Front Office” or the external hard drives called “Backup” and “Clients” and “Projects.” Those names are nothing more than identifiers.
The use of a name for voice-activated technology begins to blur the line between people and things. When these sophisticated and complex machines are given the treatment normally reserved for people, they are elevated beyond their intended role as tools. At the same time people are now on the same level as these machines. This devalues humanity.
Some of the science fiction stories from past decades reflect a fear of what happens when computers and robots become equal with or superior to people.
Start with Robert Silverberg’s 1958 novella, The Iron Chancellor, in which a robot butler becomes the totalitarian head of a family’s home, not permitting anyone to enter or leave. Arthur Clarke’s 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the movie of the same name, explore a similar theme.The HAL 9000 computer, known to those aboard the spacecraft as Hal, is initially seen as a member of the crew but later exerts complete control. Another story is No Quarter, an episode the the CBC radio drama, Nightfall, originally broadcast March 4, 1983. In this story, an advanced video game gains total control of the life of a gaming addict.
The technological developments in recent years have some amazing potential and, if used wisely, can bring benefits few could have imagined in the past.
Still, the machines we have created are only machines. They are not and must not be treated as people.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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