The Duffer's Diary
At Odds With Technology
Have you started arguing with your smart tech?
Published on Medium on February 9, 2021, in The Shadow
Before COVID-19 hit, smart tech in the home, as well as the wearable health and fitness variety, was ideal for many people. It kept us on track with our wellbeing, reminded us to move more, reminding us to calm down and even can warn us if we’re about to have a heart attack, which is definitely a benefit, whatever way you slice it.
Same with voice-activated Artificial Intelligence virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. They genuinely can be used to simplify and automate aspects of life in some remarkable ways, and when we’re all darting here and there, reminding yourself to pick up a prescription and quickly get answers to questions from your tech are often feels like it’s no more than a polite reminder or a helpful assistant. A gentle nudge. It proved so useful because we were leading busy lives. A pleasant and useful First World perk.
Since lockdown, busy is a whole different ball game. We’re stuck at home, on edge, in lockdown No. 3 here in the UK and it’s the middle of winter. Working out outdoors can be an exercise in self-flagellation when it’s inclement outside. (In fact, I’ve been watching snow hurtling horizontally down the road for most of the day). Some hardy souls can muster the necessary gumption and have the necessary equipment to deal with this sort of thing but that’s not really for everyone.
Compared to some of my friends, who were dedicated gym-goers, my relationship with fitness during the pandemic hasn’t changed much (i.e. due to a few health problems and injuries, I have to play it canny at the best of times), but they are trapped, having gone from super-active to barricaded indoors overnight. Their smart technology and their calls to action and comparisons to past activity now feel like an admonishment, and guilt and shame have started to creep in.
Now we all feel like our AI assistants and fitness trackers are judging us for our perceived lack of progress and habit changes.
That sucks, as does their timing.
Now we’re finding ourselves reacting to the alerts like we’re under attack. I’ve found myself telling Siri to shut up because he has sprung into life unexpectedly. The decidedly sniffy passive-aggressive response of “Well, that’s not very nice.” irritated me even more. When the “Breathe” app has signalled to me to take a little time out, I’m ashamed to say that I have spoken to my watch to say “What do you think I’m doing? Knitting a jumper?! I breathe ALL THE TIME!”. Telling the fitness app to eff off when it tells you that you haven’t done enough steps is also a common occurrence.
The central issue is that smart technology analyzes your behavior, but it can’t take into account the context of your behavior.
For example, when you’ve moved about less than usual, your smartwatch doesn’t know whether the weather has been crap, you’ve broken your leg or your dog has had to have an operation so you aren’t walking as often.
Likewise, Alexa doesn’t know that “she” shouldn’t play the “Keeping your parakeet company” playlist, because Polly has shuffled off to Feathery heaven. Like all machines, it tends to plough on until we tell it something to the contrary.
That said, I’m also not entirely sure making our smart tech more contextually aware of what’s going on in our lives would be all that great. The strange situations that arise without this extra, more personal data being used generates unease for me.
Reports of the freakish things that have happened, where Alexa spontaneously starts talking and playing odd music gives me the screaming ab-dabs. For example, the tale of BlackwoodBear79 via Reddit via dailybreak.com is a case in point. The Echo Dot that he bought his insomniac mother-in-law randomly stated “Goodnight Clarice” in the middle of the night one evening. (Her name is not Clarice). This is rather too “Silence of the Lambs” for my liking.
Another person reported Alexa (helpfully?!) suggesting that an arguing couple “change the subject”. Not creepy in the slightest.
It would be like owning a Furby that knew all your secrets and shared them with a massive international company. Actually, it is exactly like that already.
Arguably this tech could read your social media to gauge your mood or to determine if any life events have occurred that might prevent you from exercising or following your normal routine. It could check the weather forecast — so when you’ve got 15 feet of pure white snow outside, you don’t receive any helpful nagging bleeps and messages about why you’ve not moved as much as usual.
Providing additional information sounds all right in principle, but I also suspect that the potential for a new category of terrifying glitch would be high. It’s a difficult balance for Google, Amazon and Apple to achieve as these companies need to ensure that we trust our virtual assistants. This means they don’t end up redundant in the back of the cupboard.
It’ll have to wait to be seen how Artificial Intelligence will advance to meet our needs (especially our need not to be interrupted unnecessarily) while ensuring that the AI is truly intuitive and appropriately responsive.