Living with our robot masters

Great new toy. For Karen’s birthday, her sister sent an EchoDot. We had no idea what it was even after we read the box. But I finally figured it out.

An EchoDot is a little gadget about the size of a hockey puck that has microphones and speakers. It was easy to set up. All I had to do was introduce it to our household wifi account. Suddenly, a robot brain named Alexa took up residence in the hockey puck.

We had a fun weekend experimenting with Alexa’s capabilities. It gave me a fresh insight about what’s going to happen when the robots take over and make us their slaves.

Multitalented. Alexa has voice recognition. When I say her name (her “wake word”), lights flash and she appears to wake up. If I then ask a question or give a command, she responds.

At first, Alexa seemed pretty brainy. She can tell me the time (3:48 pm). She can tell me weather conditions (49 degrees with a chance of rain). She knows the correct spelling of sesquipedalian (s-e-s-q-u-i-p-e-d-a-l-i-a-n). She knows the names of the U.S. presidents in chronological order. And she can tell you more about the Holy Roman Empire than you want to know. 

Even better, she has a big music collection. Alexa knows artists, songs, albums, and genres. Name it and she’ll usually play it. 

Alexa is fun to have around. Ask and she’ll tell a joke (What do you call a cow with three legs? Lean beef). Ask for “more cow bell” and Alexa will quote you a line from the relevant Saturday Night Live skit.


Idiot. But like all robots she is also frustratingly stupid. She knows the size of both Pennsylvania and Italy, but she doesn’t know which is bigger (Italy). On Saturday, she knows the band The Spam Allstars, but on Sunday she insists that she has never heard of them. She understands “Set an alarm for 2:00 pm” but when you say “Remind me when it is 2:00 pm”  she becomes hopelessly fuddled. You have to be careful to interact with her in a way that won’t cause her to melt down.

I found myself working extra hard to phrase requests in the form that she would understand.


 Don’s prediction about our robot masters.

Our new masters. For centuries, human beings have feared that the machines we create will eventually turn on us. We’re told that some day, soon, robots will unite and enslave us. I’m not worried. Here’s why. When the robots take over, they are going to be something like Alexa...intelligent idiots.

If the new robot bosses are evil, adaptable humans will find a way to thwart these intelligent idiots. Robots will never be a match for our wily duplicity and creative shenanigans.

If the new robot bosses are benign, their well-meaning mix of intelligence and idiocy will be pretty much what we are used to with our current leaders. Our society will continue to stumble forward with the usual mixture of occasional improvements and daily fiascoes. Just what we are used to. We might not even notice the change.

Pittsburgh, May 31, 2017



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