…or perhaps not naming digital assistants would be better.
The weather was glorious in the UK on Easter Monday, breaking the record for the warmest Easter on record. The whole country went out to the beach, local parks, stately homes and other visitor attractions and as a dad with two young ‘uns, I inevitably ended up in a children’s playground watching over swings, slides and the odd scrape. It was a happy family moment.
And then I heard a voice going, “Alexa, Alexa!” At first, I thought was someone talking to the app on their phone but then I realised this was a mother calling her toddler daughter. OMG! What were they thinking?
Now it’s easy to criticise the parents for their choice of name but perhaps Alexa was their favourite for years and then it got hijacked by an uncaring Silicon Valley giant.
There’s another point here and I feel slightly vindicated. My Amazon Echo is programmed to respond to “Computer”, not because I’m a Star Trek geek, but because I’m concerned about the anthropomorphism of technology – that’s making something seem human when it’s not.
The issue is how we treat machines compared to people and I think it’s particularly relevant when all of the digital assistants – Alexa, Siri and Cortana – speak with a female voice. How many of us have shouted “Alexa, shut up!” when it blurts out irrelevant nonsense, and I’ve heard “Stupid woman” addressed to an in-car GPS asking for u-turn on motorway. I’m concerned that these abusive behaviours will cross over into real life, as it were. Will boys think that it’s ok to yell “Shut up!” at girls?
This problem is only going get worse as the assistants become smarter and robots more life-like. Machines should be thought of as the tools they are. We need to consider the future consequences of pretending that they are more.
Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash
Voice-activated “virtual assistants” have been growing in popularity. The fervor began with Apple’s Siri, then increased with Google’s Hey Google! service. More recently, Microsoft made news with its virtual assistant Cortana, announcing that it would be coming to the Xbox One gaming console in 2016.
But right now, it’s early October and the notion of waiting thru the entire fourth quarter of 2015 for Cortana’s arrival was too much for some Xbox One owners to bare. Using the time-honored method of “button mashing” around different screens in the Xbox One’s settings, industrious gamers (with perhaps a little too much time on their hands) found a “cheat code” that will unlock some of Cortana’s basic features today.
By accessing the Settings page in the latest Xbox One Preview and repeatedly pressing the A button on an Xbox controller, users can access some of Cortana’s basic functions. It’s a short list compared to what’s being promised with the full rollout next year. But it does provide at least a basic glimpse of what it’ll be like to use the virtual assistant in between sessions of Halo or Call of Duty.
Apple has Siri, Google has, well…Ok Google — a less clever name, but it works well enough. Then there’s Microsoft, which has Cortana. It began life on Windows Phone, but then it spread to the new Windows 10. Now it spreads further, expanding on Google territory with a beta version for Android phones and tablets.
So which service do you want to use? I installed Cortana on an LG G4 and it worked flawlessly, though it requires a bit of setup. It will ask a series of questions, though they are easy to answer.
Microsoft claims “The Cortana app can do most of the things Cortana does on your PC or on a Windows phone. With the app, you can manage your hectic lifestyle by setting and getting reminders, searching the web on-the-go, tracking important information such as flight details as well as starting and completing tasks across all of your devices”.
This open beta also improves on the closed one that previously existed. You can now set Cortana as your destination when you press the Home button.
“You will also see a few differences between what Cortana can do today in her “native” environment (Windows) and in the app on Android. For example toggling settings, opening apps or invoking Cortana hands-free by saying “Hey Cortana” are only available on Windows for now. As with all betas, we are continually improving the experience and will incorporate feedback along the way”, Microsoft claims.
You can grab the app here. It’s not compatible with all devices, though, so pay attention.