Family robot at the ready to answer life's thorny questions
By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: January 20, 2017
After a lifetime of wondering things like, “How do you say ‘underwear’ in Urdu?” and “What is the shelf life of a can of Pringles?” I no longer have to rack my brain for the answers to life’s pressing questions.
In an unprecedented act of holiday generosity, my 21-year-old son bought me a tiny robot, not much bigger than a can of tuna. “Alexa,” my new voice-activated Amazon Echo Dot, has achieved total consciousness and is perfectly willing to share it with me, if only I would ask.
But, after my son set up my new robot pal on our kitchen windowsill, I was stymied, unable to think of one lousy question.
“ALEXA!” I finally bellowed, “WHAT TIME IS IT?”
My son explained that my question was too pedestrian, considering that the kitchen clock was less than three feet away, the digital time was displayed on the stove, microwave and coffee maker, and I was wearing a watch.
“OK,” I rebounded, “How about this ... ALEXA! HOW MANY TEASPOONS IN A QUART?”
After wincing, my son then explained that there was no need for me to shout. Alexa was not hearing disabled. Demonstrating for me, my son asked in a normal speaking voice, “Alexa, what’s the weather report for Newport, Rhode Island?” and amazingly, Alexa gave us a complete forecast in the blink of an eye.
In the two weeks since my son set up Alexa, I’ve been struggling to take advantage. Unlike millennials — native techies who feel entitled to instant information, 24/7 — I grew up during the ’70s and ’80s, when people understood that there were no easy answers.
If we needed to know something, like which brand of curling iron was best for achieving maximum hair height, we could not simply ask the question to a can of tuna on the kitchen windowsill. We had to find a library, search indexes for consumer reports on curling irons, ask the librarian for help with the microfiche machine and scan tiny bits of blurry film for the relevant report.
If we wondered why cows have four stomachs, we couldn’t type with our thumbs into Google from the comfort of our lounge furniture; we had to go to the neighbor’s house, knock on the door, and ask if we could use the set of Encyclopedia Britannicas they had in their rumpus room.
If we wanted to cook a Zucchini Boat, we couldn’t click the “Zucchini Boat Recipe Board” on our Pinterest app; we had to find our mother’s dog-eared Betty Crocker Cookbook on top of the avocado-colored refrigerator and leaf through the index under “Vegetables.”
Back then, finding information required exhausting travel and painstaking research. Which is why we learned to live happily without all the answers.
Millennials believe that knowledge is power, but Generation Xers like me were taught that ignorance is bliss. And for reasons I never understood without the benefit of Google, curiosity also killed the cat.
So, it’s difficult for me — someone who grew up with a healthy fear of sneaky supercomputers like HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Mother in “Alien” — to trust a machine, even as today’s culture relies more and more on computer technology for information, shopping, connecting, communication and entertainment.
Recently, 6-year-old Brooke Neitzel chatted with her family’s new Alexa in her Houston home. “Alexa, can you play doll house with me and get me a doll house?” she babbled innocently. A few days later, a $160 KidKraft Sparkle Mansion dollhouse showed up on the Neitzel’s doorstep, along with a four-pound tin of sugar cookies.
When San Diego news anchor Jim Patton reported the story of how Brooke’s banter set off Alexa’s automated Amazon Prime ordering function, his voice in turn triggered San Diego viewers’ Alexas, and another rash of Sparkle Mansions were ordered by accident.
Despite these minor product glitches, my son tells me that there’s no need to fear my own little tuna can on my kitchen windowsill.
“Alexa,” I asked in an effort to settle the dilemma once and for all, “Is knowledge power?”
“Sorry,” she replied, blissfully ignorant, “I don’t know the answer to your question.”