A night alone in the woods with digital assistants
I thought it would be fun. A night in the woods with two of the most recognizable AI in the world. There were no distractions: no TV screens, books, laptops, or other human beings. My phone was in airplane mode.
It was just me, a bottle of moderately priced whiskey, a tiny cabin filled with tchotchkes, and my robot friends Google Home and Amazon Echo.
At home, I use these devices all the time: as alarm clocks, for weather reports, and to play music. And as the “internet of things” grows, we’re likely going to be constantly interacting with digital assistants to control TVs, vacuums, smart lightbulbs, and murderous sex robots (O.K., maybe that last one’s a stretch).
Before they totally take over our lives, I wanted to know what makes them tick, to plumb the depths of their digital souls and see what our future with AI holds. And so I headed to the charming mountain town of Idyllwild.
To be clear, I wasn’t looking to recreate the human-AI love story in Her. Not that it was possible. Nobody — not even a mustachioed loner with pants pulled up to his belly button — would fall in love with these machines. After a few minutes, two things became obvious: robots aren’t taking over the world anytime soon, and this night wasn’t going to be fun.
Sweating from the burgeoning Southern California heat wave, I sat on the bed and posed a series of increasingly preposterous requests.
“O.K. Google, tell me about sandwiches.”
“Alexa, do you cry robot tears?”
“O.K. Google, dance for me, my little space turnip.”
Alexa and Google Assistant — the digital brain that powers Google Home — answered question after question with something like, “My apologies, I don’t understand.”
Even if they did have a witty response, it stopped there. Conversation wasn’t in the cards.
To make things worse, I was stuck in the peace and solitude of nature. Down a path from my front door, there was a creaky tiki hut. I peeked in — no luck, it was empty. No rum-soaked partiers to keep me company tonight. Alone, in a cabin with a flushless, eco-friendly composting toilet called “The Hog,” the threat of boredom began to close in.
I asked Alexa to read me a poem, but it just sent me to the Alexa app. I asked the same thing of Google Assistant. In the exact opposite of a scene from Dead Poet’s Society, its robot voice dryly intoned a poem from Robert Frost:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom …
The foreboding imagery was weirdly appropriate. It felt like Google was trying to scare me, or reaching out to me for help. Either way, I was a little weirded out.
Maybe, I thought, some meditation would help. I asked Alexa for guidance, which led to the least relaxing and creepiest breathing exercise of my life.
I embedded it below. Take a listen — it’s like having HAL 9000 as your yoga teacher.
Maybe games will help me pass the time, I thought. I played Jeopardy for Alexa, complete with theme song and Alex Trebek intro. That lasted about 10 minutes.
I also tried blackjack, then Seinfeld Fan Trivia for Alexa. I’ve seen every episode more times than I’d like to admit, and I still only got about half of them right. That failure only seemed more depressing as I realized it was only 6 p.m.
I needed something more ambitious. There was a fantasy role-playing game called 6 Swords for Google Home that seemed interesting. It was not. Imagine Dungeons & Dragons with the world’s least charismatic narrator, and instead of fighting monsters, you spend all your time trying to figure how to equip a broadsword.
Minus the voice recognition and sound effects, these games were about as bare-bones as they come. Drug Wars on my TI-83 calculator was more complex — and, honestly, more entertaining.
Wasn’t there something that could really take advantage of the Echo’s and Home’s unique abilities?
Sadly, the BBC’s sci-fi drama for both devices, The Inspection Chamber, hasn’t been released yet. It’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style experience that sounds promising. I found smart speaker games are best when they incorporate voice actors, sound effects, and music — like radio you can interact with.
Another game, The Magic Door, kind of gets at that idea. It narrates your path through a magical kingdom. You can take a spooky road through a forest, or enter a garden; open the door to a cottage, or walk to the river; that kind of thing. You also interact with incredibly annoying characters.
“I have lost my magical eggs beyond this garden gate,” a rabbit with a voice like pure helium told me. I decided I’d had enough and walked outside to look at a chipmunk. It was significantly more entertaining.
By 9 or 10 p.m., I’d gotten increasingly desperate. “O.K. Google, spin the wheel,” I said over and over, hoping it would randomly select something fun for me to do.
Once, it had me play the digital equivalent of a Magic 8 Ball. Another time it said, “It looks like it’s time to jam out with some instrument sounds,” then jokingly squawked and clanged through a few seconds of mock jazz.
I was strangely impressed with Alexa’s Animal Game. It tells you to think of an animal, then asks you questions — Is it bigger than a bread box? Does it have stripes? — until it guesses it. Damn thing guessed right every time. If we want to hide which animals we’re thinking about from the robots during the robot apocalypse, we are fucked.
It was getting late, and it was obvious to me that interacting with these devices was neither fun nor going to get fun.
Yes, they’re really, really good at finding and playing music and podcasts. There’s nothing like stepping out of the shower and proclaiming, “O.K. Google, play me ‘Planet Money'” like the ruler of your own public radio kingdom.
In 2016, people spent $0.72 billion on these devices, according to a report from Gartner, a research firm. That’s expected to grow to $3.52 billion by 2021. That growth will partly come from Apple’s HomePod, which hits the market in December. It’s double the price of the Echo and Home, and it runs on Siri — a digital assistant that once, to my horror, dialed a former Tinder date when I asked for directions.
If we want to hide which animals we’re thinking about from the robots during the robot apocalypse, we are fucked.
Still, it’s probably going to sell, because Apple.
Panasonic, Sony, Sonos, and other companies are also looking to release smart speakers too.
“The race is on,” said Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner. “And everyone will be doubling down on their current investments.”
This goes way beyond speakers. Imagine digital assistants in your car, setting up appointments and ordering pizza for the family as you drive home. In retirement homes, the elderly could use devices like Amazon’s new video-equipped Echo Show to communicate with their doctors.
Digital assistants are the future, and they’re absolutely great at accessing media, controlling smart devices, and making phone and video calls.
On their own, they’re lousy company. Yes, they can interpret your speech — if phrased perfectly. And they talk with a voice that sounds human-ish.
Really, though, you’re talking to a very powerful search engine in a plastic case. A toddler provides more stimulating conversation.
Around midnight, drowsy and starved for human contact, I asked Alexa to drown out the crickets chirping noisily outside. Mercifully, that’s something it could do well. I fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the shore.