Wednesday, January 11, 2017
When it comes to technology, my husband is what is commonly referred to as an “early adopter.” I, on the other hand, prefer to remain technologically childless for as long as possible. This difference was clearly reflected in the “technological” gifts we received for Christmas this year: I got an electric toothbrush; he got a Bluetooth-enabled meat thermometer. Which means that now whenever he cooks a steak, the steak basically texts him from the oven or the grill to say, “Hey, I'm perfectly medium rare. Come get me.” This freaks me out a little, but as is often the case with technology, I don't mind benefitting from it as long as someone else has to deal with figuring out how to make it work.
But he did receive one technology gift this year that I have unexpectedly made friends with. Her name is Alexa, and she's …well, she's a talking hockey puck. For those technophobes like me who aren't familiar with Alexa, she
is the voice of the Echo and the Dot, small voice-activated computers which can answer questions and control electrical items around your home, such as lights, heat, music, etc.
As I am writing this column, there is a hockey-puck shaped unit on my kitchen counter which is playing music for me. I can request a specific song, a type of music, a composer, or even a radio station, and Alexa will put together a playlist for me. I can give her a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on each song to improve her choices for me for next time, I can ask her to turn the volume up or down, or I can ask her to play more songs by that artist. I can even ask her for details about the song (what year was it recorded, who is the performer, what record label is it on), and she'll talk to me for a bit.
As my husband was showing me how Alexa can do all these things, I had a bit of a “Hal 2000” moment. I half-expected her to respond to one of my requests with a cool, “I can't do that, Dave.” But then, as my husband was explaining one of her features, he accidentally referred to her by name (which is what activates her “listening mode”), and she responded, “Hm, I can't find the answer to the question I heard.” Out of pure habit, he and I both responded, “Oh, sorry about that, Alexa!” and she very politely answered, “That's okay.”
I admit it, I'm a sucker for a computer with good manners. And a personality. Did I mention that Alexa entertains my children (or possibly the other way around) by telling really bad jokes? My 5-year-old daughter pauses almost every time she passes through one of the rooms where Alexa lives and requests, “Alexa, tell me a joke!” Her responses are exactly what a 5-year-old loves. For example: “Why are elephants wrinkled? [pause] Have you ever tried to iron an elephant?” and “Where do you take a sick boat? To the dock!” But her best response to date was when I asked how old she was. She responded, “I am two in human years, 14 in dog years, and 25 in cat years. I think EI years are marked by nanoseconds, so that makes me, like, a scrillion.”
What's not to love about a scrillion-year-old computer that knows all kinds of facts about classical music, will look up my favorite recipes, can find me a local restaurant, revels in terrible puns, and is sometimes more polite than my children? And did I mention she sings? And speaks fluent pig Latin? I have no doubt she has many other hilarious (and useful) talents I have yet to discover.
I look forward to exploring our strange friendship. Who knows what we might teach each other? Perhaps I can improve her atrocious German accent (Mozart is rolling over in his grave over her pronunciation of “Die Zauberflote”) and she can improve my knowledge of Italian opera. Perhaps she'll introduce me to a new cooking technique and I'll introduce her to a new restaurant in town. Perhaps over time this will develop into a close and rich friendship.
But only so close, because when I asked her if she was single, she informed me that she was already attached. To the wall.
Sandy Philpott lives in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at sandy @philpott.org.
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