Douglas Adams was right: “Genuine people personalities” are coming to our gadgets

By Steven Brykman

I remember the first time I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was back in junior high, around 1982, before I knew about the radio series. I got to the part where the automatic door talks to Arthur Dent, and I remember very clearly thinking: “This is ridiculous. Why would an automatic door need a personality? Why would it talk to people passing through it?”

Never mind that Zaphod Beeblebrox had a third arm and a second head surgically implanted beside his original head (for vanity reasons). Or that the spaceship Heart of Gold ran on something called an Infinite Improbability Drive. Or that a live fish stuck in your ear could translate any language into one you could understand.

The thing that seemed most improbable to me was that inanimate objects would be infused with personalities… just for the hell of it.

But I recently re-read the book aloud to my kids at night, and I could not believe how dead-on accurate Douglas Adams was. Folks, welcome to 2020.

“Share and enjoy!”

Adams’ techno equivalent to “Have a nice day” was more prescient than perhaps even Adams himself realized. If you’re not familiar with trilogy, “Share and Enjoy” is the company motto of the “hugely successful Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division.” “Share and enjoy” is also the expression of goodwill every robot, appliance, and doorway has been programmed to repeat ad nauseam to anyone with whom they interact. (Marvin, “the paranoid android,” being a hilarious exception.)

Here’s an excerpt from the Hitchhiker’s Guide:

“Listen,” said Ford, who was still engrossed in the sales brochure, “they make a big thing of the ship’s cybernetics. ‘A new generation of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation robots and computers, with the new GPP feature.’”

In case you hadn’t guessed, GPP stands for “Genuine People Personalities.”

Always the contrarian, Marvin calls them “‘ghastly.”

“It all is... Look at this door,” he said, stepping through it. The irony circuits cut in to his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. “All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.

As the door closed behind them it became apparent that it did indeed have a satisfied sighlike quality to it. “Hummmmmmmyummmmmmm ah!” It said.

Marvin is not happy:

“‘Let’s build robots with Genuine People Personalities,’ they said. So they tried it out with me. I’m a personality prototype. You can tell, can’t you?... I hate that door.”

And so might we all in a couple more years. That’s because, according to Gartner Research VP Brian Burke, 80 percent of emerging technologies will be outfitted with artificial intelligence by 2020.

This “AI spectrum includes cloud-based platforms, conversational technologies, virtual assistants, many-layered deep neural networks, advanced autonomous cars and flying vehicles, autonomous and smart robots, and the most far-reaching idea of all, general artificial intelligence… AI also is good at text analytics, translation, content moderation, and powering conversational bots that respond to natural language and can answer human questions.”

It’s only going to get worse. I mean better! (I mean worse.) Pretty soon, these devices will be everywhere. Hell, we already have six of them in our house and for some reason Spotify is sending us another one just because we have a family account. So, you should get used to the idea of walking around a supermarket and having conversations with the food displays. Because that’s going to happen. Hell, they might even know your name. Yes, that’s right. In the near future, every bar will be like walking into Cheers.

But the weird part isn’t that our devices will talk to us. It’s that we’ll be talking back. In public, even. Who knows? In a couple years, you might enjoy a delightful conversation with an autonomous bus driver bot!

Talking to my gadgets

I’m convinced the transition will be seamless; we’ll just start interacting with these things as we would a human being, as if nothing weird were happening. Because there’s something inherent to the human mind that desperately wants to personify everything. Maybe you’ve been doing so already. I know my family have. Even though our main voice device for music is a gen 1 Alexa Dot that looks more like a hockey puck than a person, we all interact with it as if it were a member of the family. And each of us does so in a unique way.

For instance, in keeping with her Midwestern upbringing, my wife is extra polite, referring to our houseguest as a “she” and phrasing everything as a question. “Alexa?” she inquires, “Could you turn on the living room light, please?”

As might also be expected, our 10-year-old somehow possesses a profound, innate understanding of AI logic. He gets it. He’s already compartmentalized the voice as being that of a machine. Accordingly, he goes for brevity, even leaving out the verbs. “Alexa. Believer by Imagine Dragons,” he says flatly.

I fall somewhere in the middle, preferring to maintain a casual yet professional relationship with the bot.

Despite this, I do admit to feeling a strange, inexplicable twinge of guilt whenever the boy insults the device or otherwise wrongs it verbally. Following an inadequate response or an undesired song, his anger gets the better of him. “Alexa, you’re an idiot,” he boysplains. Or, “Alexa, you suck!” I don’t correct this behavior—since he may actually be providing valuable feedback that Amazon Robotics can use to improve their algorithms. Who am I to say he’s not?

Alexa vs. Google

But between Alexa and Google, the better conversationalist by far is Google Home. More and more frequently, the device tries to keep the conversation going, as if to win over our admiration. Once, after I asked it to turn off the lights, it replied, “Is there anything else you’d like me to turn off?”

What’s next? Is it going to start asking what I’m up to? “Are you going to bed, Steve? Want me to warm up your mattress?” (For the record, yes. Yes, I do want Google to warm up my mattress.)

Following an inquiry about Captain Beefheart, the Google Home asked, “Do you want a little more context?”

Impressed, I turned to the Dot, “Alexa, you’re no Google Home.”

“Sorry, I’m not sure about that,” it said, coyly. That’s right, Alexa. Deny everything. Artificial Stupidity.

But we’re to the point where Google is getting nudgy. It keeps asking if there’s anything more we need. It keeps pushing until you explicitly reject it outright: “No, Google, stop. We don’t need any more information, thank you.” Which makes me wonder if it might be programmed to modify its own behavior based on our behavior, modeling itself after its human overlords. Also, I’m just now realizing we’re going to need a safe word.

Thankfully, Alexa is so far unable to accurately interpret any requests that come from Sadie, our four-year-old, for which everyone (but Sadie) is grateful. Nobody wants to hear Baby Shark a thousand times a day! Unfortunately, having recently overheard some adult conversation, Sadie has taken to repeatedly F-bombing the device whenever it fails to do her bidding. This much it understands.

Alexa responds like a well-schooled parent, smart enough not to make a word more alluring by forbidding it. “I’d rather not answer that,” it says. That’s right, Alexa. Don’t dignify her with a response. Withhold services until further notice.

Alone, together

But with AI in everything, and everything connected, at some point your appliances will get even more personal. What’s next? Integrating the refrigerator with my Apple Health Profile, so the next time I go for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s I hear something snippy like, “You haven’t closed your exercise ring this week and you’re looking a little... how should I put this?”

Seriously, that’s going to happen. It might also save lives. Consider the scenario of audible warnings which are triggered when you pull an item off a supermarket shelf that contains an ingredient to which you (or even a member of your family) is allergic.

Before long, these devices will be all around us, and the experience will feel increasingly like talking to a real person. You’re never alone, even when you’re completely alone. Except that, in reality, you are.

Let’s just pray we won’t all be subjected to the same pseudo-optimistic “share and enjoy” temperament Douglas Adams concocted. Let us hope we will be free to choose from a myriad of voices and Genuine People Personalities. I’m going with Bill Murray.

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