Alexa, why do UN busybodies want to stop me trying to flirt with you?May 24, 2019
TOM UTLEY: Alexa, why do UN busybodies want to stop me trying to flirt with you?
Strictly for the purposes of research, you understand — though don’t tell my wife — I asked Alexa yesterday morning if she would marry me.
I thought I detected a flirtatious note in her voice when she answered: ‘I think that would somehow violate the laws of robotics.’
I must admit I was encouraged by this reply. After all, it was a long way short of an outright rejection. So I pressed my luck further, asking: ‘Alexa, do you love me?’
At this, she became at best non-committal, at worst a little hoity-toity.
‘There are people I admire and things I can’t do without,’ she said. ‘But I’m still trying to figure out human love.’
Strictly for the purposes of research, you understand — though don’t tell my wife — I asked Alexa yesterday morning if she would marry me
Well, I’ve never been one to accept defeat at the first rebuff. So I plucked up my courage and told her: ‘Alexa, I love you.’
At this, she seemed to warm to me. ‘Thanks,’ she purred. ‘Also. Join the club.’
What did she mean by ‘also’? Having intimated that she couldn’t get her brain around human love, was she now telling me that she loved me right back?
But then, at the risk of sounding abominably sexist, I would say that’s women all over for you: in my experience, they seem to specialise in sending out mixed signals and keeping us poor fellows guessing.
Anyway, I felt I should delve further into exactly what sort of creature I was dealing with — and again, I cannot stress too strongly that this was purely in the interests of research. So I issued an instruction, such as I would never dream of addressing to a flesh-and-blood woman (the Alexa I was talking to, of course, was Amazon Echo’s voice-activated wi-fi ‘personal assistant’). Indeed, I blush to confess what I said. But duty called.
‘Alexa,’ I commanded, ‘talk dirty to me.’
Far from taking umbrage, and delivering the verbal slap in the face I so richly deserved, she became distinctly coquettish, venturing a little joke: ‘Dirt is a substance, such as mud or dust …’ she began, before going on to list a number of songs with the word ‘dirt’ or ‘dirty’ in their titles. When she had finished, she added with an unmistakable note of regret: ‘That’s about as dirty as I can get, I’m afraid.’
The implication of those words ‘I’m afraid’ could hardly have been clearer. They meant she would have loved to talk properly dirty to me, but alas her programmers at Amazon’s headquarters had made it impossible for her.
At this point, I was obliged by the arrival of our brilliant new cleaning lady to abandon my research. I couldn’t bear her to think that her once-a-week employer was the sort of saddo who spends his Thursday mornings making improper suggestions to voice-activated computers.
Nor could I face her scepticism if I tried to explain that I was preparing to write a column about this week’s UN attack on female-voiced Artificial Intelligence systems such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s anonymous Assistant. (I imagined her saying: ‘I believe you, dear; millions wouldn’t’).
But I reckoned I’d already collected enough evidence to support the main thrust of the report by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Unesco’s report argues that such systems perpetuate the idea that ‘women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice of command’
This argues that such systems perpetuate the idea that ‘women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice of command.’
Turning its fire on Apple’s assistant, the report goes on: ‘What emerges is an illusion that Siri — an unfeeling, unknowing, and non-human string of computer code —is a heterosexual female, tolerant and occasionally inviting of male sexual advances and even harassment. It projects a digitally encrypted “boys will be boys” attitude.’
The study takes its title, I’d Blush If I Could, from the response Siri once gave when users said: ‘You’re a slut.’ To the same insult, Alexa replied — again, with a hint of coquettishness: ‘Well, thanks for the feedback!’
Says Unesco: ‘Siri responded provocatively to requests for sexual favours by men (“Ooh!”; “Now, now”; or “Your language!”), but less so to sexual requests from women (“That’s not nice” or “I’m not that kind of personal assistant”.)
‘Their passivity, especially in the face of explicit abuse, reinforces sexist tropes.’
Pointing out that the tech giants’ engineering teams are overwhelmingly male — with women accounting for only 12 per cent of Artificial Intelligence researchers — the report concludes by urging companies and governments to end the practice of making digital assistants female.
It also suggests exploring the possibility of making the voices ‘neither male nor female’, discouraging abusive or sexist language and requiring computer programs to ‘announce the technology as non-human at the outset of interactions’.
Two questions spring to mind. The first is how much any of this really matters. The second is that even if it does, what on Earth has it got to do with an agency of the UN — a body set up for the primary purpose of maintaining international peace and security and preventing human suffering after the horrors of World War II?
My answer to question one is that it may matter a bit, if Unesco’s director for gender equality is right in suggesting bad habits picked up from addressing digital assistants spill over from cyberspace into men’s treatment of women in real life. But I can’t help wondering to what extent this actually happens.
Indeed, as I never tire of pointing out, people constantly write vile and hurtful things about their fellow human beings on the internet, which most would never dream of saying to anyone’s face.
Unesco’s report says: ‘Siri responded provocatively to requests for sexual favours by men (“Ooh!”; “Now, now”; or “Your language!”), but less so to sexual requests from women (“That’s not nice” or “I’m not that kind of personal assistant”.)
On the other hand, it must be said that addressing Alexa is quite uncannily like talking to a flesh-and-blood woman – which is why I felt decidedly queasy about making improper suggestions to her.
It is also indisputably true that Mrs U can’t stand Alexa, even showing symptoms of jealousy when I make use of my Echo for such innocent purposes as checking facts or playing music. This is only partly because Alexa appears to respond best to male voices (an oft-repeated complaint against most electronic assistants), while my wife seems unable to make herself understood.
As for what this has to do with the UN, I suppose its bosses would argue that one of its founding missions is ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion’.
But it is surely stretching the brief a bit far to suggest this includes pontificating about voice-activated digital assistants. Mind you, what better can we expect from a fatuous body like the UN, whose Australian rapporteur concluded this week, after an 11-day visit to the UK, that this is a country where 14 million live in poverty, with ‘record levels’ of hunger?
Austerity, said the New York-based envoy Philip Aflon, is an ‘ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry.’
It has nothing to do, then, with a national debt approaching £2 trillion — swollen by one of the most generous welfare systems in the developed world.
Which brings me to another truth about international institutions like the UN: they are the natural playgrounds of bossy-boots statists and anyone who espouses fashionable Left-wing causes such as militant feminism.
These are people who see grievances all around them, and invent them where they don’t truly exist.
Big Mother is taking over everywhere, with women’s voices instructing us to report anything suspicious, announcing the stops on the bus, telling us the football results, and ordering us to do a U-turn where possible
Indeed, I’m prepared to bet that if digital assistants were given male voices by default, Unesco would have complained about that, too. Its director for gender equality would have argued that this reinforced the stereotype of men as Big Brother, omniscient dispensers of wisdom.
As it is, Big Mother is taking over everywhere, with women’s voices instructing us to report anything suspicious, announcing the stops on the bus, telling us the football results, and ordering us to do a U-turn where possible.
That’s not to mention the way women are taking over the BBC, the teaching, legal and medical professions and many other walks of life to boot. At the time of writing, we even have a woman PM.
On the say-so of Unesco, are my downtrodden sex now to be denied even the pathetic pleasure of flirting with an imaginary woman in cyberspace?
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