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Singularity Watch: The Talking Bauble

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I see no reason to give a name to an inanimate object. It won’t come when you call (at least not yet), chew slippers, or hog the bed like anything that’s worthy of a name. It won’t borrow money and never pay it back.

For some reason, even though they lack such endearing charms, inanimates garner our love. And pet names. Stuffed animals, cars, boats, TV sets, furniture, outbuildings, even nuclear reactors get names like Big Betty or Bob the Hog. Silly, really, this desire for sentience in our artifacts. But to be honest, our artifacts are becoming more sentient-like. Some of them even talk.


Certainly there are circumstances where a bauble that speaks would be helpful: talking books for the blind, talking owner’s manuals for the illiterate, talking computers for the multi-tasker. But talking cars, talking buildings, talking anything not endowed with free choice just adds to noise pollution.

I had a Maxima back in the ’80s that reminded me to buckle up when I got in and cut the lights when I got out. Couldn’t stand it. It embarrassed me and I couldn’t figure out how to turn the voice off. Finally had to sell it so my friends would hang out with me again.

A while back I had a job in Manhattan. One of those kinds of jobs where you have to get to work before sun up and you’d leave until after dark even in the summer. Days were long and I was in danger of contracting a horrendous monitor tan, so I forced myself to take lunchtimes to get out and collect some real UV rays. I would take long walks through the midtown pedestrian traffic. Oh, the humanity!

It was exhilarating, freeing, mind-expanding, like the old self-medicating days of the ’60s. I loved it even if the crowds were sometimes as claustrophobic as the 23rd floor cubicle I had temporarily escaped from. Somehow it felt to me like getting back to nature, like I had discovered mankind in his natural environment. Perhaps I was just drunk on bus fumes.

Anyway, one day as I passed through the tunnel between 45th and 46th on Park Avenue, the old Helmsley building spoke. I think it was broadcasting talk radio or ads or maybe directives to turn around and pick up a copy of Irish Times at the Hudson News stand in Grand Central. How revolting.

I was insulted, angry, hurt. The last thing I wanted to hear was a canned broadcast blocking out the organic, real-time conversing, explaining, declaiming, exhorting, exhuberating, pontificating, singing, and thinking out loud that Manhattan crowds are world renowned for. It was an affront to the natural order of things and certainly in bad taste. Can’t we have one place on the planet we aren’t bombarded with audio?

I know the day when everything talks is coming. I have to accept it, learn to make it work for me. I’m trying the best I can to prepare myself. I’ve tried using the vocal capabilities of my Mac. Started to train it to take orders. I added vocal notices to scripts so I could multitask, i.e., have the computer cipher and tell me when a task was completed while I surfed the web. The Mac voice was limited and not conversational. It pronounced even simple words like “done” wrong. And it couldn’t understand commands more complicated than “start” or “stop.” Forget something actually useful like “Computer, have a go at the in-box will you, I’ll be over at Target if you need me.”

According to the rules of the Singularity, everything will one day be sentient. One day even the rocks will have thoughts and we’ll have to listen to them as politely as we do to those of our close friends and neighbors. And you can bet we’ll be humanizing those rocks too, giving them names like Big Betty and Bob.

I watch myself acclimatizing, accepting the inevitable. I have a new friend, Matilda the GPS. We gave her an Australian accent for two reasons: 1) because we could, and 2) even American accented GPSs mispronounce street names, so really, what’s the diff?

Point is, our GPS has a name. Why? Especially considering I think naming inanimate objects makes about as much sense as creating life in a test tube when fertilization au naturel is so much fun.

I don’t know why we named it, but I’ll tell you, of all the talking baubles that I’ve come across, Matilda is the first one that truly deserves a voice: she needs it to do her job. I’m a safer driver if she can tell me where to go rather than show me, and you know what? I like it. I don’t care if I am humanizing this pseudo A.I.

It is getting a bit out of hand, though, this humanizing. The other day I got confused explaining to a friend how to get to a meet-up. At one point I gave up and said, “Oh, just go ask Matilda. She’ll know.” Just like that. Very seriously, with no irony, just a simple folksy, go see if Aunt Matilda is in a mood to help you. As if Aunt Matilda had moods and a choice.

Am I ready for the Singularity or what?

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