Tag Archives: Communication

Screenshot of Siri's response to "Are you a robot?"

When Robots Lie

Last week, a particularly weird piece of artificial intelligence news made a splash in the internet ocean. TIME magazine’s Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a phone call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, who was selling health insurance. She was friendly and cheerful, but something about her bugged Scherer.

“Are you a robot?” he asked her.

With a little laugh, she insisted that she was a real person. Still, something was off. Scherer pressed her on several points that would have been simple to an ordinary human being, but Samantha — or Samantha-bot — was unable to answer. Later, other TIME reporters called her back. Here are the conversations they had:

Now, as it turns out, Samantha West is not precisely a robot. The company “employing” her revealed a couple days ago to TIME that Samantha West is simply a soundboard of pre-recorded statements and questions, which is operated by a live human. The technology does not yet exist to build a stand-alone bot capable of what Samantha West does over the phone. Though automated, she is not autonomous, and therein lies a small difference.

But Samantha West grabbed my curiosity nonetheless. After hearing her story, my mother and I played around with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri on the iPad, who is most definitely a robot. However, Siri refused to admit this when we asked, making evasive statements like, “I’m an assistant. Isn’t that all that matters?” and “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories.”

I set out to discover if this was just a fluke, or if there are other chatbots around that also do not acknowledge they are robots. Continue reading When Robots Lie

Mail from Mars

Atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the rocket rose into the blue October sky. The vibration of its engines shook the ground three miles away, where Arthur McLaren stood watching his wife leaving the Earth.

“It’s only five years,” she had said as they embraced one final time beneath the launch platform. A crowd of others saying their own goodbyes surrounded them, and the scent of kerosene and metal was heavy on the air.

“I know,” he said, and smiled to disguise his pain. “Five years of hopping over Martian sand dunes looking for fossil bacteria, while I sit at home running conference calls and weeding the garden.”

“Don’t pull all the weeds. They’ll be a rare sight when I get back,” she joked.

You better come back, he thought. “I will miss you,” he said, and kissed her fiercely, pulling her orange jumpsuit–clad body tight against his for a long moment. Then it was time. She had waved to him as the elevator took her and her nine fellow voyagers up to the shuttle, and he boarded the bus to return to the observation center to watch the launch.

And now the shuttle was gone, and the trail of smoke drifted away in the wind. A bell sounded, and a voice (was it human? Or computerized? It was hard to tell nowadays.) announced that the shuttle had achieved orbit. The time was 10:43 am, October 5, 2041. Arthur left the observation center, took a cab to the airport, and caught a flight back home to Virginia.

He ate a lonely dinner that evening, knowing it would be the norm for eighteen hundred nights to come. He was making tea afterwards when a call came in. Samantha McLaren, read the message on his watch. He went to the viewscreen overlooking the kitchen counter and turned it on. His wife’s image appeared. Continue reading Mail from Mars

When we’re all iPeople

Two days ago, I came across this video of Marshall Davis Jones performing his poem “Touchscreen”. It struck me powerfully, both by the vigor of his expression onstage and by the incisiveness of his message about technology. Watch it yourself before you read on:

That was in 2011—merely two years ago. Today, technology has grown even more intimate with our personal experience and interactions. Google Glass is a real thing now, smartwatches are arriving at an online store near you, and there’s worry that the family television, one of the last remaining centers of regular familial activity, will be replaced by the screens of single-user devices. We are experiencing a greater and greater chunk of our lives not directly, nor in the physical company of others, but through our ever-present gadgets. Continue reading When we’re all iPeople