Machines Should BeepI had a friend once who bought a car that talked to him. It had a female voice and it would say things like "Your door is open." For some reason we thought that was extremely funny and he took a lot of kidding about his relationship with that car. The idea itself never caught on. That was in 1982 and, with one exception, we still don't have talking cars. My car tells me when I've left the keys in the ignition, it even tells me when to shift, but it tells me with beeps and flashing lights. Some of this is user interface design (don't try to hide a mechanical interaction behind a "humanized" design), and some, I suspect, is that we really don't want our machines talking to us, Star Trek and 2001 notwithstanding. On the other hand, I talk to my computer all the time. I'm not one of those people who name or anthropomorphize their computers but I tell it to hurry up or swear at it when it bombs. Once I bought a program that puts an animated cat on your desktop. For a while there, I talked to that cat. Her name was Sophie and sometimes she got more attention than my real cat Spotty. The irony was, I've never owned a cat so strongly affectionate as Spotty was. He was always trying to sit in my lap and out of guilt I took to letting him while I was working on the computer. All this has serious Turing Test implications, I realize, but I didn't think about them. Like the CSN song, I had one cat on my lap and one cat on the screen and both were purring because I was petting them both. Spotty is gone now and so is Sophie. Both died of natural causes, Spotty of feline leukemia and Sophie's computer got traded in, but I thought about them again the other day. We got a car with a GPS. It's an English car, so the GPS had an English accent. I turn it on just to hear the female say "Take the next left turn" in that cute accent. But sometimes the news is depressing and I also turn it on. After all, if Bob Dylan, in "Talking World War III Blues" could "call up the operator of time, just to hear a voice of some kind," I can turn on the GPS. I know all the reasons why a GPS should talk, having to do with keeping the driver's eyes on the road and the amount of information that needs to be conveyed. The reasons I like the voice have more to do with the reasons people keep the TV going in an empty house; I'm reminded there's something outside of myself. Other than the GPS, my car still beeps at me. Neither the real or computer cat ever said anything. And the Turing implications, now that I think of them, may be overridden by the need "to hear a voice of some kind."
13 Aug 2009; 12 Feb 1997
Copyright © 1997, 2009 Truck Smith