A young Google engineer was recently fired for suggesting that

PHILIP NORMAN takes aim at the verbose presences of robots in our lives

“Hello,” my computer screen said as I turned it on to write this.

“Welcome back,” he said minutes later when I returned from a trip to the bathroom.

A friendly companion for a writer in his hours of self-isolation and a boost to his ever-fragile ego?

Actually no – this machine is an electronic babble that I would often happily whack if it had one.

It’s not the incessant dripping of messages across the screen that gets to me, but the attempts to make them sound “human.” Which I suppose must mean looking a lot like computer programmers – on that evidence, some of the most boring people ever born.

Suppose I searched for something on Google, but a problem in the Wi-Fi is blocking access. On the screen will appear a question mark inside a thought bubble and a trail of dots.

“Hmm,” the message says, as if the computer is scratching its head in bewilderment and embarrassed to let me down, “looks like we can’t find your page…”

Another version says “Oops!” Instead of ‘Hmm’ and adding sickly: ‘Hurry up because the Net won’t be the same without you.’

On my (admittedly outdated) computer, even the “Save” function has been given a personality. Instead of “Save” or “Save your changes?” it says “Do you want to save your changes?” with what seems like a sly nudge and a wink.

A young Google engineer was recently fired for suggesting that “artificial intelligence” could have feelings and emotions deserving of as much respect and sympathy as humans. So, do we have to learn to live on an equal footing with our satnavs and Bluetooth or – knowing us – will they become a persecuted subspecies like the robots in Blade Runner?

Even our cars are now filled with wordy robot presences, with the satnavs, the invisible attendants marking the drive out of ten after every ride, and the Bluetooth phone announcing “I’m connecting!” with a spill of letters on her little blue screen that looks practically orgasmic.

Our satnav voice is that of a young cultured Englishwoman, but they are available with all regional accents and in celebrity versions such as Tom Cruise, Homer Simpson and Darth Vader.

MYSELF, I’ve never gotten over the awkward feeling of having a stranger in the car who supposedly knows the way but goes silent for long, irritating intervals and starts sulking if his instructions aren’t followed at the right time. letter.

Who would have guessed that such contempt could be put into the words “route recalculation”?

I remember once seeing a TV documentary about a British couple traveling to France to start a snail farm – before Brexit, of course – under the guidance of a particularly sultry female satnav.

Halfway through their journey, they were on the verge of a divorce, with the wife accusing the husband of preferring satellite navigation to her.

Mid-twentieth-century literary prophets such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley envisioned the machines that would dominate our lives as coldly impersonal and relentless, but they turn out to be quite the opposite.

Indeed, a young Google engineer was recently fired for suggesting that “artificial intelligence” might have feelings and emotions deserving of as much respect and sympathy as humans.

So, do we have to learn to live on an equal footing with our satnavs and Bluetooth or – knowing us – will they become a persecuted subspecies like the robots in Blade Runner?

I’ve always wondered who does voices for satnavs, as well as answering machines and public address systems – whether that’s a career in itself or a stepping stone to the West End or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Most ubiquitous has to be the safety warning repeatedly broadcast at stations and on trains (when staff are not on strike) in a supreme example of copywriter clumsiness: “If you see anything wrong no, text the British Transport Police We’ll sort it out See it, say it, sorted.

What is sorely missing from this urgent message is any sense of urgency. “Something wrong” simply suggests a social gaffe like wearing brown shoes with a blue suit or eating peas off a knife. As we know, suspicious bags or packages are not “sorted out” so easily. And that clumsy “Look at it, say it, sorted” thing that a creative genius had to be paid a fortune for, generals all for, telling us we don’t have to worry when we’re doing it so blatantly.

My most shameful lack as a technophobe is never having consulted Siri, the source of all knowledge in the cyberworld that can be invoked only by voice. “Hey, Siri,” we hear everywhere. “What was John Wayne’s real name?” or “Hey Siri, how do you make the perfect Hollandaise sauce?” or “Hey Siri, what is Uzbekistan’s Gross National Product?”

Siri, who I naturally assumed was female, was clearly irritated by my silence and continually interrupting my searches for other things with her “How can I help you?” type request. followed in a few seconds by “I’m listening”.

One day, under the stress of the author, I replied: “Fuck you”.

“I won’t answer that,” said an unexpected male voice, possibly her cyber bodyguard or her boyfriend.

Sorry, Siri.

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