Automated ‘voices’ that were supposed to do mundane tasks online also now spread hate speech and polarise opinion. Are they a boon or a threat?
Alan Turing’s famous test of whether machines could fool us into believing they were human – “the imitation game” – has become a mundane, daily question for all of us. We are surrounded by machine voices, and think nothing of conversing with them – though each time I hear my car tell me where to turn left I am reminded of my grandmother, who having installed a telephone late in life used to routinely say goodnight to the speaking clock.
We find ourselves locked into interminable text chats with breezy automated bank tellers and offer our mother’s maiden name to a variety of robotic speakers that sound plausibly alive. I’ve resisted the domestic spies of Apple and Amazon, but one or two friends jokingly describe the rapport they and their kids have built up with Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home Hub – and they are right about that: the more you tell your virtual valet, the more you disclose of wants and desires, the more speedily it can learn and commit to memory those last few fragments of your inner life you had kept to yourself.