A robotic confusion

(160911) -- NANNING, Sept. 11, 2016 (Xinhua) -- A visitor takes photos of dancing robots from southeast China's Taiwan during the 13th China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 11, 2016. (Xinhua/Zhou Hua)(wyl)

Legislative officials in the European Union have been trying to decide whether robots are people or not….writes Nury Vittachi

A visitor takes photos of dancing robots.

This is idiotic. Of course they are people. The little robot in my smartphone told me. (Not a joke. I asked Siri if she was human and she replied: “Close enough.”)

One defines “people” as sentient beings with whom one can have intelligent conversations, right? So that must include Siri and her rivals, but exclude babies, household pets, Donald Trump and nationalist politicians in general.

I was thinking about this when someone sent me a video of a press conference at the White House. A reporter asked a long, rambling question and one of the nearby phones responded: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you want me to change.” Everyone laughed, since it was a straighter answer than officials usually give.

At the time of writing, Alexa is the hot new artificial assistant my early-adopter friends are buying. Although unattractive (she looks like a cylindrical crisp container) she exists in a permanent state of semi-sleep until she hears her name, her brain circuits clearly copied from married men, civil servants, students and the like.

The waking up bit creates problems, I’m told. TV news reports about Alexa ordering expensive stuff from Amazon.com causes Alexa robots near TVs to wake up and start doing the same. I heard news anchors pontificate about this as if it was a glitch, but since the machines come from Amazon.com, it sounds rather a profitable one.

My tech friend says the current trendy amusement is to gather several AI robots (such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Next) on to a table and get them talking to each other, no humans involved. Long conversations follow but it’s incredibly creepy to hear so much chatter with no actual functioning human brain involved. It’s exactly like being in a bar on a Friday night.

Anyway, my geek buddy thought watching machines converse was hilarious, but it annoyed me, forcing me to envision a grim future where we work for a living while our gadgets hang out chatting and joking. Wouldn’t it be better the other way round? And what if the machines plot to take over the world? It happens in pretty much every robot movie, right?

He told me I was being ridiculous as the devices can’t even move by themselves. But I told him that that was only a matter of time. “Alexa, can you close the curtains, please?” I asked. “Not yet,” she replied (this is not a joke, you can try it yourself). Is that not clear proof of their ambition?

Anyway, this writer has decided against purchasing his own Alexa as his teenage daughter is called Lexi and confusion is likely. I already have an expensive, half-listening semi-sleeper of that name who orders stuff from the internet, and one is plenty.

Still technologists do create interesting stuff, although I worry deeply about their values and priorities.

Things That Make Me Angry #281: Scientists can fly people to the moon but can’t find a way to transmit coffee through my phone. Come on, guys, get with the programme.

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