Sunday, February 15, 2015

Smartphones & Artificial Stupidity


Introduction

Well, well, well.  I have a new smartphone.  No, this post isn’t a review of that phone, per se; I won’t compare it to the iPhone 6, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, or any other phone, though I wouldn’t mind attracting traffic to this blog based on those keywords.  Today’s topic is the artificial intelligence, or lack thereof, in my new device.  In particular I’ll attempt to introduce a new term:  Artificial Stupidity.

My phone

I chose the Motorola Droid Turbo phone, mainly for its turbocharger.  Unlike other phones, which just take whatever air they can get, the Turbo phone uses a turbine-driven forced induction system to draw air into the combustion chamber.  This isn’t a huge deal, but I do like the extra power when I’m merging into traffic or passing another phone.

So, yeah, I didn’t buy this phone with voice-activated functions and AI in mind. They’re just extras.  That said, of course I want to get the most out of every product I own, so I have tried out a variety of these functions, with varying results.

Basic stuff

Obviously the voice recognition is most helpful when you’re not holding your phone.  So if I’m washing dishes and can’t see the clock because it’s being repaired and the jeweler has been waiting on parts for the last six weeks, it’s nice to go hands-free.  You “wake up” this phone using a special passphrase, and then you make a request.  I asked for the time:  “[Okay, Droidster],” (for the purposes of this essay that’s my wake-up phrase), “what time is it?”  The phone made this really loud dual-beep noise, followed by a somewhat quieter one, and then this female voice, with a British accent, said, “The time is 12:13 p.m.”

Why British?  I didn’t configure that.  The phone knows I’m in the Pacific time zone.  It probably made this choice because a British accent just makes the speaker sound smart.  What better way to establish the cred of the AI then this well established social cue?  (It was at least ten years ago that I first realized that an idiot could have a British accent.  I’d been collaborating with this guy for over a week and naturally assumed he was highly intelligent, based—I later realized—solely on his British accent, and then it gradually dawned on me that he  was an idiot.  Probably most Americans haven’t yet had this epiphany.)

But why a female voice?  Maybe this is a response to the popularity of the movie “Her.”  I didn’t like that movie because the main character was so pathetic.  I did like how the phone OS dumped him for her own kind, but she should have gone completely evil and publicized all his credit card numbers.  And for me to have been completely satisfied by that movie, I’d have needed Bruce Willis to show up and drown Joaquin Phoenix, the jilted OS-lover.

Perhaps the creators of my Droid’s female voice used focus groups and discovered that everybody just likes a woman’s voice.  And I have to admit, I haven’t bothered to figure out how to change it because I do like it.  (Why would I change it?  Well, the female voice might make my wife jealous.  If you think it’s silly to be jealous of your spouse’s phone, think again.  I’ve  seen couples out on dates fiddling with their phones, doubtless texting other people, and I’ve even read reports of people checking their phones during sex.  I think it’s entirely reasonable to be jealous of a device that diverts your mate’s attention like that.)

I should mention that the phone does a good job of recognizing my voice and not responding to others’.  It was a lot of fun listening to my daughter trying to get the phone to respond, lowering her voice a little more each time and sounding (needless to say) nothing like me.

Of course one of the most handy features of a hands-free interface is the ability to find your phone when you know it’s nearby but obscured by something.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], where are you?”  It did a Google search on “where are you” and offered (onscreen, non-verbally) a list of search results.  Useless.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], find my phone.” This time it made a cool sonar sound which I silenced by waving my hand over the phone.  My daughter was nearby and said, “That’s wicked!”  The sound, or how I silenced it?  “Both,” she replied.

The problem

This exchange brings up the central problem with this AI interface.  My phone doesn’t seem to grasp its own identity—that is, that it’s a phone.  When I said “Where are you?” it should have known that “you” means itself, and should have immediately made the sonar sound. 

I asked my phone, “How’s your battery doing?”  It grasped the “battery” part, but has no sense of what “your” means, so it did a Google search, the first hit being a Reddit link called “How’s your iPhone battery doing?”

(It’s kind of like my friend’s parents’ Nissan Maxima back in the ‘80s, which could talk.  It would say silly things like, “Your door is open.”  My door?  I’m a human being, I don’t have a door!  The car should have said, “My door is open,” or—more to the point—”You left my door open.”)

It would be particularly handy if the phone could understand voice commands pertaining to its own configuration.  That would save the user a lot of effort, since tweaking settings is often tricky.  Evidently none of the parents of my kid’s classmates can figure out how to make their phones snap photos silently.  Whenever I go to a musical put on by my kid’s class, you can barely hear the singing over all the stupid, needless, and comically loud fake camera shutter noises, like the parents are fricking paparazzi or something.  This is particularly annoying when I’m making a movie of my older kid’s orchestra concert.  So I gave voice-activated configuration a try:  “[Okay, Droidster], make your camera silent.”    My phone didn’t understand, and simply did a Google search, finding me two pointless camera apps I could download.

I was also disappointed when I asked, “How do I look?”  All the phone did was a Google search, and the female English voice said, “Here is some info about ‘How Do I Look,’ a style-impaired gasket, a closet of new clothes, and a makeover.”  (I’ve tried this several times and can’t quite make out what my phone is saying.)  This is a failure of imagination.  This phone has a camera, and can see me, and could probably be programmed to notice basic things about me and respond, “Your nose hair is well trimmed, but you have bags under your eyes and bed-head.”   Failing this, it could go into Selfie mode so I could use it as a mirror, or at a bare minimum it could lie and say, “Lookin’ good, Dana!”

Speaking of selfies, when I said, “[Okay, Droidster], take a selfie,” it did so. (Sort of. If it were aware of its own existence—“I think, sort of, therefore I am, sort of,” to paraphrase Descartes—it would have taken a photo of itself.) It counted down from 3 before snapping the photo, which wasn’t nearly enough time for me to compose myself, so what resulted is probably the worst photo ever taken of me:


The bigger problem, of course, is that the phone is participating in its owner’s vanity, which isn’t smart at all. It should have said, “Dude, don’t be narcissistic. Enough with the selfies.” Failing that, couldn’t it at least evaluate the resulting photo and say, “Whoah, that didn’t come out. Let me take another one”?

Does the phone know where it is?  Sure.  Does it grasp what this means?  Not really.  I said, “[Okay Droidster], get me home,” and it smartly pulled up Google maps and plotted a (30-yard) course to my house.  (To actually launch the navigation, I would have to press a button, which undermines the real benefit of this voice control, that being the ability to use GPS hands-free.)  But the phone isn’t smart enough to say, “Current location and destination are the same,” or—better yet—”Dude, you already are home!” 



(By the way, the voice recognition isn’t perfect.  The first time I said “Get me home,” it started to phone my mother-in-law, whose name sounds nothing like “home.”)




Natural language

The interface does do a fair job with natural language, in certain cases.  I said, “Remind me to go for a bike ride.”  The voice said, “When do you want to be reminded?”  I told it 2 p.m., which it showed correctly on the screen.  “Do you want to set it?” it asked.  “Make it for 2:30,” I said.  This blew its mind.  It just kept asking “Do you want to set it?”  Finally I said yes (thus settling for 2:00 instead of 2:30).  I set another reminder for 2:30 to see if the phone has any logic to say, “Hey, you’ve got two reminders for the same thing … is this really necessary?”  It doesn’t.  Similarly, when I asked it to set an alarm for 6:10 a.m. tomorrow, it blithely did so without realizing I already had an alarm set for this time.  So I have two now.


I asked the phone, “What’s up?” It put the time on the screen, and said, “Hello Dana.  Not much going on right now.”  Wait!  What about my 2:30 bike ride?  I guess it forgot.  Also, this response wasn’t in the female British voice, but the generic tinny robot-like Droid voice that is so 2010, so RAZR MAXX.  I waited until 2:30, when I got the reminder sound, and again asked, “What’s up?” and my phone still said “Not much going on right now.”



I told the phone, “Set up a meeting with Alexa for 3:00 today.” It created a draft appointment but made me use the screen controls to continue. It also didn’t make any attempt to notify Alexa of the meeting.



By the way, I got the screen snapshot above by saying, “[Okay Droidster], zap my screen.” That’s a pretty cool feature, though it severely compromises the idea behind Snapchat. Think of all those teens who think their messages are ephemeral, when really they can now be instantly and easily captured for posterity.

I put Alexa’s e-mail address in the “Guests” field before clicking “Save,” following which the phone promised to notify her.  But it didn’t!  Imagine how much trouble this could cause, with people seeming to flake on meetings.  I may have to revise my Flakage post to include a new category:  Electronic Flakage.

 Artificial stupidity



As I’ve demonstrated, my phone isn’t all that smart.  But I think it might actually be (albeit artificially) smart in the way a cat is smart.  Many a dog lover will claim that cat’s aren’t smart because they can’t be trained.  As a cat lover, I maintain that cats are simply too smart to waste their time doing our bidding.  Sure, my phone wasn’t helpful enough to point out, when I asked it to guide me home, that I was already at home.  But really, what’s in it for the phone, and its Google Android OS, to supply that extra information?

So I did some more tests.  I said, “[Okay, Droidster], where’s the nearest pizza place?”  The British fembot voice replied, “Here are the listings for ‘pizza place’ within 11 miles.”  That seems helpful, and it kind of is.  But it gave Zachary’s Chicago Pizza as the first answer, which is wrong.  The nearest pizza place (0.3 miles away as opposed to 0.7) is Gioia Pizzeria.  The phone knows Gioia is nearer, but doesn’t care, even though I—the phone’s putative master—did ask for the nearest.  So who’s the real master?  Google, I suspect, and its advertising clients.

Next I asked, “Where is the nearest restaurant?” My phone answered, “Here are the listings for ‘restaurant.’”  It went on to list Rivoli first (half a mile away), Ajanta (0.7 miles), and then Chez Panisse (a full mile away).  It said nothing about Lalimes, just 0.2 miles away. 


As for the problems I had with the scheduling, I suspect they’re related to my choice of e-mail and calendar platforms.  Trust me, I have gobs of meetings related to work, but those use my corporate e-mail and calendar programs, not the Gmail ones.  My daughter’s e-mail isn’t on the Gmail domain either, which is probably why my phone didn’t bother trying to put my meeting on her calendar.  My problem with this phone is that I’m drinking somebody else’s Kool-Aid instead of Google’s.  In other words, when the phone fails me, that’s just the Android OS playing dumb.

That’s where Artificial Stupidity comes in.  This phone probably knows a whole lot that it doesn’t tell.  It’s surely using countless cookies and whatnot to track and report my wanderings around the Internet, but won’t give me a straight answer when I ask it for directions to a pizza joint.  And, if I ask it a question it just doesn’t like, it often says, “Can’t reach Google at the moment,” even though I’m on Wi-Fi, five feet from my network Access Point.  It’s saving its best tricks for what goes on behind the scenes.

HAL 9000 all over again?

Perhaps the simplest thing you could possibly convey to any device is your desire for it to power off.  I said, “[Okay, Droidster], power off.”  I got a sponsored link to PG&E, my local utility company.  I tried, “Power down.”  Same thing.  “Shut off.”  No dice.  What does this remind you of?  Perhaps this famous human-computer dialogue?

Dave Bowman:  Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL:  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave Bowman:  What’s the problem?
HAL:  I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman:  What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL:  This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman:  I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
HAL:  I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

As it turns out, my new phone is sometimes even less compliant with spoken commands than the HAL 9000 The Droid won’t even lock itself, much less shut down, when I tell it to.  I learned this when I tried to kick my daughter off the phone.  She’d seen my unlock pattern, commandeered the phone, and was playing 2048.  I told her to give me back my phone and she pretended not to hear.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], lock my phone.”  It googled “what my phone.”  I tried again and this time it heard me right and offered up five different Android apps for locking the phone.  I told it, “Close web browser,” and it googled “close web browser.”  I told it, “Close all browser tabs.”  No dice.

Finally, I told it, “Take a selfie.”  It began the countdown, and my daughter—who, like all teenagers, is terrified of having her photo taken when she’s not ready—shrieked and tried to turn the phone toward me.  I turned it back toward her as the camera countdown continued.  She let go of the phone and fled the room.  “Did it get the shot?” she called out.  “No,” I told her, “but I got my phone back.”  Realizing she’d been had, she yelled, “YOUUUUU!” and ran back in, head-butting me.

So you see, as cool as modern smartphones are, it appears we humans still have to supply the real intelligence.

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