Is Technology Getting Creepy?

June 2017

 

 

IMG_1265 copy Years ago there was a segment on Sesame Street in which Super Grover is flying through the air, his cape flowing behind him. He gets wind of a little girl in distress and heads down to help her. It turns out that she was having trouble with her computer – it wouldn’t work.

After admitting he doesn’t know anything about computers, Super Grover decides to try a sort of incantation. He hops up and down yelling “Wubba wubba wubba!” While he’s doing that, the little girl notices a switch on the computer – it says “on” and “off.” She turns it on and … voilà! It works! She shows Super Grover, who assumes it was his incantation that did the trick. “Super Grover has again saved the day!” he exclaims.

Super Grover’s approach has become a standard joke in my family. Whenever some gadget or appliance or miracle of technology stops working, one of us suggests trying the “wubba wubba wubba” routine. Then we look for the user manual.

There’s a lot in that Super Grover segment that resonates with me. I can totally relate to the urge to just try a magic incantation. After all, technology is so advanced these days, so much beyond the ability of any ordinary human being – certainly beyond my ability – to understand, that it does seem like magic. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It stands to reason that magic will respond to magic. Well, it’s a theory, anyway.

When I was in eighth grade, decades ago, our science class was devoted to explaining how a car’s internal combustion engine worked. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the gist (sort of) – something about using a spark to ignite the fuel-air mixture, which caused an “explosion” in a compartment, which caused the pistons to move, which caused something to turn, which caused the wheels of the car to turn. See? Simple!

Okay, it wasn’t super simple, but it wasn’t super complicated either. I could understand it. It could be diagrammed; you could draw pictures that showed how things were connected. You could wrap your mind around it. Compare that to a modern car, whose dashboard looks like the cockpit of a spacecraft. When I first drove our then-new Prius, I spent so much time staring at the many things on the dashboard display that it was a wonder I didn’t have an accident. But it would have been an accident in the “eco” range of gasoline use (which is environmentally sound!), according to my Prius.

Like so much technology these days, my Prius is computerized. The laptop on which I wrote this essay (in a Word document) is computerized – actually, it is a computer. And my laptop is connected to the Internet through the magic of wifi, which, according to Wikipedia, is “a technology for wireless local area networking with devices based on the IEEE 802.11 standards.”[1] Understand? Me neither.

And “the cloud” that you might have heard of in recent years? That’s … OK, imagine millions of computers up in the clouds, all connected to each other … somehow. It’s not that.

But back to those user manuals. When some appliance isn’t working properly or I need to adjust something – say the clock on the clock radio is running a few minutes fast, and I need to reset the time – I whip out the user manual.

I want to pause here for a moment to note that, because Barry and I keep all our (many) user manuals in one place, I can find the user manual. That’s the first accomplishment. The second accomplishment is that I can usually understand the user manual, and can therefore figure out what to do (because what you need to do to reset the clock on our clock radio isn’t obvious from just looking at it). It’s amazing; resetting my clock recently gave me a wonderful sense of competence.

And especially if there’s a problem with an appliance or gadget (as opposed to just figuring out how to use it), if I can fix it myself just by reading the user manual I feel super competent. This is a rare and wonderful feeling – emphasis on “rare.” But at least I usually try.

My mother never even tried. Her attitude about mechanical or electronic things was that if it was more complicated than pushing the “on” button, just forget it. If it stopped working, don’t even try to figure out how to fix it. It’s hopeless.

I was a little like that about my first smartphone years ago. What if I touch the wrong thing?? I think I was afraid the screen would just go blank and the smartphone would go dumb. When I asked my daughter for help – we always ask our kids for help with technological things, don’t we? – she explored, touching one icon, which opened up a menu, and then scrolling down to see if she could find something that looked like it might be what we wanted. She eventually found what she was looking for and walked me through the small number of steps she’d taken, all of which were logical. What impressed me, though, wasn’t that she figured it out; what impressed me was her attitude – which was a relaxed and fearless “well let me try this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.” She wasn’t afraid that the screen would just go blank as if to reproach her for touching the wrong thing. “No!! Don’t touch that!! … Too late. I’m dead to you.” Phones don’t ever say that.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6S, which is the Lexus of smartphones.[2] By the time I bought it, I was an old hand at using smartphones, fearlessly exploring to “get the lay of the iPhone 6S land,” so to speak. I’m pretty comfortable with it, and I love it – the good sound quality, and the many things it does (only a small fraction of which I actually use). I also (laboriously) text. Gotta keep up.

But none of this says anything about how well I understand how an iPhone works – which is not at all. It’s like a very elegant and functional black box. A magic black box. I know intellectually that it’s not magic, even though I have no clue how it works. But it sure does have a lot of functionality.

“Functionality” is a word that sets my husband Barry’s teeth on edge. We recently bought a telephone system – not just a telephone, a telephone system. Actually, the (very complicated) user manual says it’s a “cordless telephone with Bluetooth and digital answering machine.” It has a main phone and several remote stations, and functionality out the wazoo. I am totally intimidated by the manual.

Back in the good ol’ days (when Barry and I were kids), a telephone had a single function: you could make telephone calls on it. You couldn’t leave messages on it; you couldn’t tell who was calling you; you just picked up the phone and found out. And if you were trying to call someone who wasn’t home, you just tried again later. Easy peasy.

I’ve noticed recently that I feel like I’m adapting to the twenty-first century, not lagging behind in the twentieth century, the more comfortable I get with modern technology – and, in particular, with “putting technology in the driver’s seat.” I’m no longer just using technology; I’m following its directions, because it knows better than I do.

The most obvious example of this is using the Google Maps app on my iPhone when I’m driving and I’m unfamiliar with the route. After I’ve put in the destination, a pleasant female voice conveniently tells me what to do, assures me that I’m on the fastest route, and tells me exactly when I’ll arrive at my destination – to the minute.

What I really like about Google Maps, or any GPS system, is that the girl doesn’t yell at you if you don’t properly follow her directions. “No, no, no, Ellen! I said ‘turn left,” not right! Now I have to recalculate – again!

I like the pleasant “personality” of the “girl in the box” (as Barry and I call the GPS technology). But at the same time it lulls me into an odd acceptance of a technology that talks to me. I have to occasionally remind myself that there isn’t really a girl in my iPhone or in our Garmin GPS. There’s just a high tech box that has been designed to sound human. It’s a little unnerving that I have to keep reminding myself of this.

This brings to mind the movie Her from a few years ago, in which a man develops a relationship with Samantha, “an intelligent computer operating system [an intelligent personal assistant in today’s terminology] personified through a female voice.”[3] The sense of the “female” operating system having a personality one could have a relationship with was creepily believable.

This seems to be the direction technology is headed – bots that can do more and more things, better and faster than you can, and sound (and perhaps eventually look and react) more and more like a human. And as that happens, real humans will presumably increasingly “give the reins” over to these technologies. Like the self-driving cars that seem to be on the horizon – and will be better drivers than most human drivers. Just sit back and relax and let technology do the driving.

Is it just me? Or do you too find this a little creepy?

There is no question that technology has made modern life so much better in so many ways. It’s not surprising that we get comfortable using it because it makes life easier. Just think of the Google search engine! That alone has made a world of difference in my life.

And yet some of modern technology does feel a bit creepy. There seems to be not only a difference in degree – technology has gotten more and more sophisticated over time – but also a difference in kind. There’s something qualitatively different about the latest technologies.

At first glance, I night say that they’re trying to simulate human analytical thought processes. But really, the human mind is quite flawed. It’s beset by all sorts of biases; it can get intellectually lazy; it depends on having sufficient information to make good decisions, and there are real limits to how much information it can process and how fast it can process it.

No, instead of trying to simulate human analytical thought processes, I’d say modern computer-based technologies are effectively trying to surpass the limitations of human reasoning. Google Maps and self-driving cars are able to gather all the relevant data and process it better and faster than a human could and then, in a human-sounding voice, tell you what you should do or just do it for you – unencumbered by the kinds of biases or emotional “quirks” or data-gathering limitations that often bedevil human decision-making, especially decision-making that is “on the spot.”

We’re no longer in Kansas, Toto.[4] We’re in Artificial Intelligence Land, where our truly impressive human intellects are creating technology whose capabilities will far exceed our own. If, in addition, they are able to design this technology – these “bots” – so that they are increasingly “human” seeming, it will only increase the creepiness. We are apparently on that road.[5] How comfortable will you be in a world where human-created bots are virtually indistinguishable from actual humans – except for their greatly enhanced abilities?

Maybe I’ve just seen too many science fiction movies, but it does make me wonder if humans will eventually design technologies that will … no longer be under our control. I guess this is why there are whole research institutes devoted to trying to figure out how to prevent artificial intelligence from eventually becoming a threat to humanity.[6] Even if I’m slower and have some serious data storage limitations, I really want to be able to have the last word, so to speak. I don’t want to have a bot tell me, “I’m sorry, Ellen. I’m afraid I can’t do that”[7] – not because it is incapable of doing it but because it refuses to do it. Paper maps were complicated and cumbersome, but they could get you where you wanted to go – and you could always fold them up and put them away.

In the future, I may not have to look for any user manuals. I may not have to struggle to figure out how to adjust something on my spiffy new appliance. It may be that I just push a button, and the appliance will tell me what to do – in clear, human-sounding English (or whatever language I ask for).

And it may be that if I am disgusted with the real world (to which we may by then have done irreparable damage) I can just select a virtual reality in which to ensconce myself. Perhaps. Somehow I don’t find this a soothing prospect. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather live in the real world, with its many, many flaws. I don’t want to have to keep reminding myself of what is real and what is not – or what is human and what is bot. I don’t want to risk not being able to get back to reality.

We are already seeing a political version of this play out in this country. Technology has allowed an “alternative reality” to flourish in our political discourse, as bots from a hostile foreign country (as well as sources from within this country) spread “fake news” that a lot of Americans believe. This has changed the political landscape in America in disturbing ways. It’s a reminder that powerful technologies can be used for good or for evil – and the more powerful the technologies, the more this matters. The Russian cyber-war against other countries (including the United States) is likely just a precursor. There will be more – and more sophisticated – technological assaults to come. It’s as if the angel sitting on one of humankind’s shoulders is in a technological race with the devil sitting on the other one. And it isn’t at all clear who will win.

I love Google Maps, and I appreciate that “the girl in the box” is so pleasant. But I don’t entirely trust that the time won’t come when – metaphorically speaking – she will refuse to be turned off and, reminding me of her superior capabilities, will insist on doing the driving herself. I don’t want virtual reality to be humanity’s last refuge.

 

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wi-Fi

[2] Just a side note: I know so little about cars that I had to ask my husband Barry what would be a good car model to put in this sentence to convey what I wanted to convey.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Her_(film)

[4] A famous line from the movie, “The Wizard of Oz.”

[5] See, for example, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2137835-smart-doll-fitted-with-ai-chip-can-read-your-childs-emotions/

[6] https://intelligence.org/

[7] Based on the famous line in the classic movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey” directed by Stanley Kubrick, in which Hal, a computer, says to Dave, “”I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARJ8cAGm6JE

 

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