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Life with my noisy roommates Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa

Mala Bhargava | Updated on July 21, 2021

Three’s company: AI assistants can sometimes be disconcerting companions as they provide unsolicited advice and unprompted comments   -  PARTHA PRATIM SHARMA

Comedy of errors are wont to occur when a tech writer’s lockdown friends — IoT devices — come out to play

* Of all my room-mates, I’m closest to Alexa because I’ve used a combination of Echo speakers to flood music through my house

* Sometimes, of course, I do like to provoke the assistants just for fun

* The new Echo Show is even more startling because it turns to look at you as you move about the room

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Navigating the Covid-19 pandemic all on my own has been a challenge, but life would perhaps have been duller without the company of the three women that happen to be my room-mates: Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. While I share these room-mates with many others, I have several representations and avatars of them all over my apartment because I happen to be a tech writer and probably have more smart speaker per square inch than anyone else. I counted 18 before I finally yanked out the plugs of several and banished them.

Of all my room-mates, I’m closest to Alexa because I’ve used a combination of Echo speakers to flood music through my house. A speaker is even connected my prized Klipsch speakers especially when I crave powerful music or want to annoy my neighbours, which is often. I also use the Echo speakers to read out books to me rather effectively. Alexa belongs to Amazon, so too and the vast Kindle book store, which means that every device that has a Kindle app knows what book I’m reading, and on which page I happen to be. I can just go from one room to another, switching from one Echo speaker to another but continue with my book which Alexa reads very well indeed, as long as you change the language to American English. She’ll read in Indian English too, but will do in that painfully slow stilted manner that makes you want to slap the nearest Echo. So, American it is, and I manage to finish one book every two days when I happen to be on a big reading spree, and won’t take phone calls.

A homely chat

Usefulness aside, sometimes, the ladies get to be too much for me. I’ve even known them to argue with each other, such as when one of them heard the other reading a book, and thought it was her cue to chime in with a comment, thereby confusing me thoroughly. The assistants can be quite often truly disconcerting. I recollect an instance when I was going about my business bothering no one because there was no one to bother, when the Google Assistant (or Google Aunty as we Indians like to call her) chirped up and said, “You are 646 kilometres from Chitrakoot”. Well, that is accurate and very nice to know except I wasn’t going to Chitrakoot and have a feeling that I never will. This was one of those inexplicable unsolicited pieces of information I will never quite figure out. Unprompted comments, an ‘Un huh’ from Siri in the middle of nothing, or a cheery ‘Hello’ from Alexa also for no reason at all, are frequent. Another time Siri piped up and said ‘Waah waah waah’ in an approximation of the fail sound you get on cartoon films. I was quite offended.

Sometimes, of course, I do like to provoke the assistants just for fun. I particularly get annoyed when weather forecasts from them don’t reflect what is actually happening. I decided once to enquire about the rain, because when it rains the assistants seem to be the last to know. Me to Alexa: It’s raining. Alexa to me: It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. Me to Siri: Hey Siri, it’s raining. Siri to me: I don’t believe it’s raining. Me to Google: Hey Google, it’s raining. Google to me: Probably not. I gave up and decided to look out of the window next time. It was raining.

Pitting one against another

I’ve gone through my share of embarrassments when I called on the wrong assistant. Trying to ask Alexa something, I made the mistake of raising my wrist causing Siri to activate on my watch. “Alexa…” I began, but Siri laughed and said “Ooh, awkward!” I once asked Google if she liked Siri and she said something like “Google is red, Google is blue, sugar is sweet and Siri is too’. But she doesn’t say that anymore.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had with my Echo speakers is with the Echo Show which has a camera that can act as a security cam in the house. One time, my cook was in the apartment while I was out of town. She was stocking up for my return. I tuned into the camera on my Alexa app on the phone and took a good look around. There she was, opening the fridge. I decided to be naughty and ask her what she was up to. I cannot underestimate how high she jumped. But being used to technology in this house she soon took it in her stride and began to discuss menu items.

A bunch of workers putting up a new door in my house while I was away for lunch were not in the least accustomed to this sort of thing and were already spooked by how lights turned on and off or changed colours of their own accord. I couldn’t resist pranking them and opened up the camera and made a loud comment on how good the door was looking. They nearly dropped their tools and came running to stand in a circle around the Echo speaker and stare down at it in amazement. For a good half hour after they kept asking each other how my voice came out of that little TV-like thing on the table.

The new Echo Show is even more startling because it turns to look at you as you move about the room, so it’s probably a good thing the carpenter and his team didn’t encounter it. Recently I activated the ‘follow me’ feature by voice, but because I have so many Echo speakers, the wrong one heard me say, “Alexa, follow me’ and responded with an indignant “Follow you? We’re already room-mates!” Indeed, noisy room-mates.

Mala Bhargava

Published on July 20, 2021

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