Cabin

I spent a night alone in the woods with Google Home and Amazon Echo and immediately regretted it

The tiki hut next to my cottage.

I thought it’d be fun. A night in the woods with two. There were no distractions: laptops, books, no TV displays, or other human beings. My telephone was in airplane mode.  

It had been a tiny cabin filled with tchotchkes, me, a bottle of moderately priced whiskey, along with my robot buddies Google Home and Amazon Echo.  

At home, I use these devices all the time: as alarm clocks, for weather reports, and also also to play audio. And as the “net of items” grows, we’re probably going to be constantly interacting with digital assistants to control TVs, vacuums, smart lightbulbs, and murderous sex robots (O.K., perhaps that last one’s a stretch).  

Before they take over our lives, I wished to understand what makes them tick, to plumb the depths of the souls and see what our future with AI holds. And so I led to the charming mountain town of Idyllwild.  

To be clear, I wasn’t looking to recreate the human-AI love story in Her. Not that it had been possible. Nobody — not even a loner with pants pulled up to his belly button — would fall in love. After a couple of minutes, two things became evident: robots aren’t currently taking over the planet and this night wasn’t going to be fun.

Sweating in the Southern California heat wave, I introduced a series of requests and stumbled on the bed.  

“O.K. Google, tell me about sandwiches.”

“Alexa, would you cry robot tears?”

“O.K. Google, dance for me, my little space turnip.”  

Alexa and Google Assistant — the digital brain that powers Google Home — answered question after question with something like, “My apologies, I don’t know.”  

Even if they did have a witty response, it stopped there. Conversation wasn’t in the cards.  

Alarm clocks, older and new.

I had been stuck at the serenity and solitude of nature, to make things worse. Down a path in my front door, there was a tiki hut. I peeked in. No more rum-soaked partiers to keep me company tonight. Alone, in a cottage with a flushless, ecofriendly composting toilet called “The Hog,” the threat of boredom started to close in.  

I asked Alexa to read me a poem, but I was sent by it to the Alexa app. I asked the same thing of Google Assistant. At the Specific contrary of a scene by Dead Poet’s Society, its own robot voice dryly intoned a poem from Robert Frost:

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
proved not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom …

The vision was appropriate. It felt as though Google reaching out for help to me personally, or tried to frighten me. Either way, I was a bit weirded out.  

Perhaps some meditation would help. I asked Alexa for advice, which resulted in the most creepy and least relaxing breathing exercise of my entire life.  

I embedded it below. Take a listen.

Perhaps games can allow me to pass the time, I believed. I played Jeopardy to get Alexa, complete with theme song and Alex Trebek intro. That lasted about 10 minutes. 

Additionally, I tried blackjack, subsequently Seinfeld Fan Trivia to get Alexa. I have seen every episode more times than I’d like to confess, and I only got about half of them right. That collapse just seemed more depressing as I understood it was just 6 p.m.

I needed something more ambitious. There was a dream role-playing game known as 6 Swords to get Google Home that seemed intriguing. It was not. Imagine Dungeons & Dragons with the world’s least charismatic narrator, and instead of fighting creatures, you devote all your time trying to figure how to equip a broadsword.  

Sound effects and Minus the voice recognition, these games were roughly as bare-bones as they come. Drug Wars on my TI-83 calculator was more complicated — and, frankly, more entertaining.

Wasn’t there something which could really take advantage of the Echo’s and Home’s unique abilities?  

Regrettably, the BBC’s sci-fi drama for the two devices, The Inspection Chamber, has not been published yet. It is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-design experience that seems promising. I found speaker games are greatest when they feature sound effects voice actors, and audio .  

Another match, The Magic Door, kind of reaches that notion. Your path is narrated by it through a magical kingdom. You can have a spooky road through a forest, or put in a garden; open the door to a cabin, or walk to the river; that kind of thing. You also interact with incredibly annoying characters.  

“I have lost my magical eggs beyond this garden gate,” a rabbit with a voice such as pure helium explained me. I decided I’d had enough and walked outside to look at a chipmunk. It had been more entertaining.    

Thanks, pineapple sign.

I found a copy of ‘Idyllwild Living’ on my bed. Its cover version was a kitty.

By 9 or 10 p.m., I’d gotten increasingly desperate. “O.K. Google, twist the wheel,” I stated over and over, hoping it’d randomly select something interesting for me to perform.  

After, it had me and with the equivalent of a Magic 8 Ball play with. Another time it said, “It looks like it is time to jam out with some tool seems,” then jokingly squawked and clanged via a couple of seconds of mock jazz.  

I was strangely impressed with Alexa’s Animal Game. It informs you to consider an animal, then asks you questions — Is it bigger than a bread box? Does it have stripes? — until it guesses it. Damn thing guessed. We are fucked if we want to hide which creatures we are considering in the robots throughout the robot apocalypse.  

It was getting late, and it was obvious to me that interacting with those devices was neither fun nor going to have pleasure.  

Yes, they are really, really good at enjoying and finding audio and podcasts. There is nothing like stepping from the shower and proclaiming, “O.K. Google, play me ‘Planet Money'” such as the ruler of your own public radio realm.  

What’s lurking in those woods …

In 2016, people spent $0.72 billion about those devices, as demonstrated by a report by Gartner, a research company. That is expected to grow to $3.52 billion by 2021. That growth will come in Apple’s HomePod, which hits on the market in December. It is double the price of the Echo and Home, and it runs on Siri — an electronic assistant when I asked for directions that after, to my terror, dialed a Tinder date.    

We are fucked if we want to hide which creatures we are considering in the robots throughout the robot apocalypse.  

Nonetheless, it’s likely going to sell.  

Panasonic Sonos, and other businesses are also currently looking to release wise speakers .  

“The race is on,” said Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner. “And everybody will be doubling down on their existing investments.”  

This goes way beyond speakers. Imagine assistants in your vehicle, ordering pizza for the household as you drive home and setting up appointments. In retirement homes, the older could use devices such as Amazon’s new video-equipped Echo Show to speak with their doctors.    

Digital assistants would be the future, and they are absolutely great at obtaining websites, controlling smart devices, and making telephone and video calls.  

On their own, they are poor company. Yes, your address can be interpreted by them — should phrased. And they speak.

Really, however, you are speaking to some search engine at a plastic case. Conversation is provided by A toddler.  

Around midnight, tired and starved for human contact, I asked the crickets chirping outside to be drowned out by Alexa. Mercifully, that’s something it could succeed. I fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the shore.  

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