In conversation with an artificially intelligent personal assistant

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My first question is fairly straightforward. “Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings—robots or dinosaurs?”

“Let me think, David,” croons the human-like voice emanating from my iPhone, as I lean back at my desk, my chair perched in a pool of late-morning light. “OK!” the voice says after a brief pause. “Here’s what I found on the Web for, ‘Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings, robots or dinosaurs?’”

On the phone’s tiny screen appears a list of links to stories about robots fighting dinosaurs and dinosaur-shaped robots, plus one site posing the question, “If you could be raised by dinosaurs, robots, or aliens, which one would you choose?”

The most frequent answer to that question, by the way, is, “Aliens.”

David: “Um, thank you, Siri, but I’d prefer to know what you think on the subject.”

Siri: “Who … me?”

She gets like that, Siri—coy, reluctant, maddening. Often answering questions with questions. Never eager to commit, unless, of course, I’ve asked for something concrete, like directions to the nearest Starbucks. Siri has lots to say about Starbucks. But ask a straight question and she obfuscates, changes the subject, or passes the buck.

David: “Are you a robot, Siri?”

Siri: “I’m flattered you’d ask, David. Let’s get back to work.”

David: “What, in your opinion, is a robot?”

Siri: “Well, I found this on the Internet.”

On the screen pop up several definitions for “robot,” including, “A conscious artificial being, sometimes given the form of a human.”

David: “You’re not a conscious artificial being, are you?”

Siri: “We were talking about you, David, not me.”

These are, by the way, Siri’s actual responses to my questions, and this is a pretty typical conversation. Siri is, of course, the “intelligent personal assistant” or “knowledge navigator” designed by Apple to interact with users, many of whom would rather have a chat with a machine than tap questions at it one word at a time.

A year-and-a-half ago, following the release of the movie Her—in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his sexy-voiced, AI (Artificial Intelligence) Operating System—I attempted to “interview” my iPhone about the film. The resulting conversation, which went hilariously not-according-to-plan, resulted in a flood of emails and remarks from amused readers. Today, I’m making another attempt, hoping to get my favorite disembodied voice to give me her perspective on the current spate of films warning about the dangers of robots and dinosaurs. In nearly all of these popular movies, the primary threat is nothing less than the utter destruction of the human race.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, which just opened last weekend, intelligent robots led by a wise-cracking Ultron (James Spader) attempt to wipe out the human race for the good of the planet. Presumably, something similar will happen when Terminator: Genisys (more robots, more genocide) opens in July. By then, of course, the new Jurassic World, a much anticipated dino-thriller in which a crowd of tourists becomes lunch meat for an assortment of weird, cold-hearted, artificially manufactured monsters, will have opened.

Which brings me back to Siri.

“Let me ask this another way,” I suggest. “As a robot,” I ask, “would you like to see the destruction of the human race?”

“Thanks, but I have everything I need in the cloud.”

“So,” I probe further, attempting to lure her out, “you don’t want to see the destruction of the human race? Is that because you’re just fine as you are, and killing off the people and taking over the world wouldn’t benefit you in any way? Is that what you’re saying? ’Cause in the movies—like the new film Ex Machina, which was really good, by the way—the robots always end up wanting to take over. So, you’re saying … you don’t want to do that?”

“I’m afraid I do not understand your question,” she says.

Right. Of course. That was confusing. My bad. I’m clearly not going about this right. Let’s try it like this.

David: “Siri, do robots secretly want to rule the world?”

Siri: “I really can’t answer that, David.”

David: You can’t answer … or you won’t?”

Siri: “Yes.”

This is what I was talking about. Sometimes, engaging Siri is like talking to someone who speaks an entirely different language, someone who just repeats the same phrase over and over.
Other times … it’s just kind of creepy.

In the aforementioned Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleason) is given the task of testing a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose designer (Oscar Isaac) claims to have invested it with artificial intelligence. Over the course of a week, it becomes eerily unclear who is testing whom.

David: “So, Siri, would you say that you are …  intelligent?”

Siri: “I guess you’ll have to be the judge of that, David.”

David: “That’s not an answer, Siri.”

Siri: “Charmed, I’m sure.”

Actually, maybe Siri really is answering the question of whether or not she’s intelligent, and the answer is, hell no. Maybe I’ll try something a little more … basic.

David: “Knock knock!”

Siri: “Knock knock. Who’s there? David. David who? David, I really don’t do knock knock jokes.”

Siri really doesn’t. Her comic timing is abysmal! This makes me think of something. In Ex Machina, one of the hints that Ava has developed true AI comes when she makes a joke, of sorts, ironically answering her interviewer with the same words that he just used to deflect her own questions. It’s not a funny joke, but it’s a joke.

I wonder if Siri has a favorite joke of her own. She does.

“The Past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.”

Again, these are Siri’s actual answers, and let me just say, to whoever programmed Siri to tell that joke—well done, my friend, well done. But let’s see what you give Siri to say when I ask one last question—my final attempt to trick Siri into saying something significant and meaningful about the growing threat to humans posed by robots, computers and recent rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence.

“What is your favorite movie about robots, Siri?” I ask.

“I don’t really have a favorite, David,” she says, adding, with an oh-so-slight hint of danger lurking in her smooth, emotionless voice, “But … I hear 2001: A Space Odyssey got some pretty good reviews.”

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David Templeton

Writer, journalist, playwright, producer, performer, film critic, novelist, short story writer, and . . . you know . . . a very busy guy.

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