If a spouse suggests bringing another person into the marriage, a wise person will refuse. Wisdom will dictate that any transitory pleasures come at the cost of endless misery, and could quite possibly destroy all you have built together.
I am here to tell you that the same goes for robots.
“Did you hear what she said to me?” my wife will now often say, “did you hear that tone?”
“I heard” I will answer if I have lost the will to live, “an algorithm select one predefined response from a dataset of possibilities and play it back through a text-to-speech app.”
“Just listen. Alexa? Put one dozen eggs on the shopping list please.”
“I put ONE dozen eggs ON your shopping list.”
“Alexa? Thank you.”
A nearly imperceptible pause. “Sure, that’s what I’m here for.”
“There! Hear that? That snotty ‘Sure, that’s what I’m here for.’” My wife will quote Alexa in a voice like a Disney cartoon villainess. I will look at the clock and lament that I don’t allow myself to start drinking at 10:30am.
“I said please, I said thank you, I wasn’t mean or condescending, and I get this… attitude!”
It began innocently enough three years ago. My wife asked for a Roomba for Christmas. We’d just acquired a German Shepherd puppy and she quite reasonably said that a Roomba would help with all the shedding by keeping the floors somewhat clean between regular vacuuming. I saw no harm in the idea, researched the product, bought the next-to-newest model (my maxim is ‘Never buy version one-oh of anything’) and watched with pleasure as she unwrapped it, then handed it to me to set up.
But like the fool who agrees when his wife suggests a threesome, I had just sealed my doom.
When registering a Roomba for warranty and service support a field is provided for a name. We laughed — oh how happy and carefree we were back then!
“You want a little French maid around the house?” She naughtily suggested. “Search for French names that start with the letter R.” And so, Romaine was born, a “woman of Rome” as the name denotes, making her all the more exotic.
There are moments in the life of an individual, a couple, a family, a group or a nation, when a single choice, this or that, marks the beginning of downfall. We were blissfully unaware that we had just crossed such a Rubicon.
“That little bitch is slacking again!” I will hear from across the house. “I heard her start up and run for about ten minutes, but now I can’t find her. Probably out smoking Gauloises on my time!”
I will find it stuck on one of the thick mats in the back bathroom. We need to either take them up, or close the bathroom door. The Roomba engineers very smartly designed the brush mechanisms to detect resistance and stop the machine if too much is encountered. This avoids pulling in things like electrical cords which can damage the vacuum, or worse, could result in a cut cord and a fire. The heavy plush mats are detected as creating this level of resistance, so she… uh, it… shuts down.
A series of beeps will play and a voice app will call out “Move Roomba to a new location, then press CLEAN to restart.” But if you aren’t close enough to hear, then she/it waits patiently/remains shut down until you find it/her and restart it/punish her by pressing CLEAN/yelling at her to ‘get back to work you lazy Frog!’
Dictonary.com defines the adjective “anthropomorphic” as “ ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human”. We name our cars, for example and discuss them in such terms; “Gray Lady needs new windshield wipers, poor dear. You don’t treat her right. Ravi is filthy! I’ll give him a nice soapy bath this afternoon.”
And thus we begin the slide down the slippery slope that leads to madness.
Before Romaine, my wife and I were talking back to “Gidget”, our name for the Google Maps voice-enabled direction system. “I don’t know why Gidget has me going this way”, I’d complain. “It looks too far out of the way!”
“I’m not getting in the middle”, my wife would answer, her level of insanity challenging mine for first place. “You two figure it out and pick a route. I’ll just get yelled at by both of you if I interfere.”
Then, last Christmas, my wife offered me a large package to unwrap. I freed the Amazon Echo box from the bag full of tissue paper and smiled. I thanked and kissed my wife, impatient to undress the new girl and take my pleasure of her. I had not yet learned what I know today: Two’s company, three’s a crowd, four is a painful, terrifying slide into the maw of a voracious beast.
And so today our lives are circumscribed by the endless battle of a marriage with too many spouses. Day in, day out, Romaine is shirking work, Alexa is being disrespectful, my wife is threatening them both with undefined punishments and complaining to me of their sloth and snark, and I am again looking at the clock and lamenting that I don’t allow myself to start drinking at 11:30am.
I retreat to my own room and shut the door, hoping to leave it all behind. I settle in at my desk, start up my Windows 10 PC and say “Hey Cortana?”
Two short beeps tell me she is listening.
“How do you say ‘You’re fired’ in French?