Daily Archives: March 7, 2019

Alexa’s Conversation Skills & Two Literary Links

Photo of robots:  Hal in “2001:  A Space Odyssey” ( top left), Amazon Echo Alexa (bottom left),  Amazon Voice Remote (top right) and Cylons on “Battlestar Galactica” (below right)

At first I thought it was a humor piece.

That’s why I read The Wall Street Journal. It’s so light and bubbly.

And the title of the article is witty, “Alexa, Can You Be Empathetic, All-Knowing and Funny?”

I know Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated A.I. digital assistant,  in the form of our TV remote. When I say,”Alexa, Better Things,” she accesses the FX TV show.  When I say, “Alexa, I’m Sorry,” another comedy, she says,”Don’t worry about it!”

She understands me about half the time.  (This is not an exact statistic.)

And so I was surprised to read in the WSJ:

In the future, a conversation with a digital assistant will be indistinguishable from one with a person, according to Rohit Prasad. As the head scientist of Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa, Mr. Prasad oversees hundreds of engineers working to ensure the AI-powered assistant properly responds to voice commands, whether in Echo speakers, smart microwaves or cars. Mr. Prasad is also developing AI to tackle more complicated issues, like teaching Alexa to converse fluently, whisper responses or suggest that you close the garage door.

I would say Alexa has a long way to go.

And then my thoughts turned to robots in film.  There’s Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the know-it-all robot who takes over the spaceship. Then there are the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, robots who look fully human, destroy Earth, and have a grudge against humankind. There  are good Cylons and Cylons. The good Cylons believe they are human and fight for humankind.

In the UK,  Rocco, an African Grey rescue parrot,  communicates easily with Alexa (the Echo).  You’ve probably heard that he ordered groceries.  (The order didn’t go through because Rocco didn’t log in.)

But the funniest bit about Alexa was on a Saturday Night Live skit.

LITERARY LINKS.  Do you know Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series?  Sinclair won the Pulitzer for the third book in the series,  Dragon’s Teeth.  I learned about these splendid novels in 2005 from Julie Salamon’s brilliant essay in The New York Times, “Revisit to Old Hero Finds He’s Still Lively.” She begins,

When I was about to turn 12, my mother came across a set of familiar books in a sale bin at a secondhand bookstore in Cincinnati, about 60 miles from our home in rural Ohio. She remembered being mesmerized when she read them years before, and bought the entire set for me, for my birthday.

The pages were yellowed, and the red cloth jackets were worn. But I knew the minute I began reading the Lanny Budd series that this was a significant gift, a sign that my mother considered me very grown-up. There were 11 volumes in all, covering the first half of the 20th century in 7,424 pages. The heft wasn’t merely physical. These historical novels engulfed me in the thrilling and terrible imperatives of history that had deeply affected my parents directly but seemed far removed from my time and place, a placid corner of Appalachia.

And, by the way, a book abouut Sinclair is on my night table:  Upton Sinclair:  California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual, By Lauren Coodly.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Times have changed since Norman Mailer asserted that men write with their dicks (Advertisements for Myself) and that women have the wrong genitals to be serious writers, but it is still gratifying for women of my generation to see women’s literature appreciated and honored.  The longlist has been announced for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize and then The Baileys Women’s Prize).  And I’ve already read three on the list and rejected one.

Does that make me qualified to judge?  Sure.

Here is the longlist:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Milkman by Anna Burns
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Praise Songs for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden
Circe by Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Normal People by Sally Rooney

I loved  Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from a woman’s perspective,  and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, an offbeat novel about a Sappho scholar who falls in love with a merman.  (You can read my thoughts at my old blog, Miribile Dictu, the Barker here and the Broder here.)

I very much disliked Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a novel about two hollow young people, Marianne and Connell, and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again and their years at Trinity.  You can read my thoughts on it here .

And I started Anna Burns’s Milkman, which won the Booker Prize last year.  It filled me with ennui, but if you need a sleeping pill I recommend it!

Do you know any of the books on the longlist? Do you recommend them?