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 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.

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