Advantage: Humans

During training for my employer’s new integrated workflow management system, I had to view a bunch of pre-recorded videos. These videos navigated through various screens I was likely to encounter, highlighted relevant sections of each screen, and displayed pop-up text to describe what I was seeing and provide context.

The first time I viewed these screens, I was working from home and remoting into my office computer. Because of this connection configuration, I was unable to use the audio and had to quickly read along with the videos before the pop-ups went away.

The next day, I was back in the office, so I thought I would use the audio and let the computer read to me. Why exercise the eyes and collection of rectus muscles when you can sit back and let the dulcet tones of a husky or bass narrator read to you?

Mistake.

Instead of a human, a computer narrator assaulted my ears with accents in the wrong places, pitch inflections at odds with a word’s meaning and placement within a sentence (think Mike Myers in View from the Top after Christina Applegate’s character turned the word “assess” into an obscenity: “You put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble”), and an apathetic intensity that made me think more of Pauly Shore in Biosphere than of James Earl Jones in, well, anything.

The computer read the words correctly, but it blew the performance because it had no consciousness, no soul, no experience from which to draw, no pain to infuse, no happiness to drape across a symphony of words.

Few things are as intimate and as unique as the human voice. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful, bountiful, and diverse of all instruments. Of all the things technology makes possible, I’ll wager replicating a human voice is one that cannot be achieved, and if it can, if we can somehow devise a measurement system to determine that we’ve achieved algorithmic replication of a human voice, one that would pass a Turing Test, one a real human would trust and in which would find comfort, find love, I say we should not aspire to this. I invoke Dr. Malcolm. The question of should we is as important as can we.

Your voice is the representation of your soul. No matter how close algorithms come to a convincing facsimile, they will only ever approach a limit. They will always lack a soul.

Advantage: humans.

I’m aware that one should not take this to the extreme. One shouldn’t substitute a human for every instance of Alexa in millions of homes around the world. That would be creepy, always having a human listening in on you, although there could be some benefit. A human might fall asleep and miss a few words. Alexa misses nothing.

She chimes in at inappropriate times, such as when you’re trying to say, “Get Alex a hamburger,” and Alexa, circling blue and turquoise light signaling an inopportune entrance into a conversation, says, “Okay, for hamburger, I recommend …” A real buddy would grill me a hamburger, or, better yet, throw a frozen patty in the microwave so I can instantly have my dosage of radiation and beef. A real buddy would say “How good is that?” with no trace of sarcasm.

Alexa is like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper: she gets sarcasm as well as a cat tolerates a bird on the other side of a screen door.

Advantage: humans.

Have you ever received a mild electric shock? Perhaps you’ve plugged in a frayed lamp cord, tried to plug in a good condition cord in the dark and gotten your fingertips past the base and touching the prongs, been jogging while a downed powerline whipsawed its way back and forth on the road before you like a snake on acid, catching your heel and giving you the extra jolt needed to finish strong.

With the possible exception of the last example, I’ve always found electrocution to be unpleasant. It’s a weird sensation. It seems wrong and foreign to my senses, anathema to my sense of what it means to be wholly human.

I feel a similar sensation when I hear an artificially-generated voice.

These phonetic fakes cannot approach me and you.

Advantage: humans.

Little Meth Lab on the Back 40

I told a colleague that you could buy 12 acres in rural Iowa, plus a private lake, forest, and a decent house for $325K. He mentioned something about using all the extra savings to catch the backwoods economic wave in Iowa and start up a meth lab operation. This colleague has lived his whole life in Oregon. Knows next to nothing about Iowa.

I could get offended. I was born in Iowa. My family still lives in Iowa. Iowa has a huge tech presence in Des Moines. Outsiders who’ve never visited are generally ignorant about how modern Iowa is. But mainstream Iowa doesn’t make the humor ground fertile. So instead of getting offended, I’m going to get funny. Imagine an Iowa in which meth labs are legal to the same extent as, say, marijuana in Oregon. Throw the hyperbole switch.

* * *

Voiceover: Iowa. Fields of Opportunities. Balanced budgets. Happy, affluent urban cores. Near the top of the nation high school graduation rates. If you thought living in Iowa was a sure-fire path to career success, you’d be right. But if you thought school was the only way to make money, you’d be wrong.

Deirdre: I was so happy the day my permit was approved. We’ve had an old RV sitting in our backyard, collecting dust, spiders, and the occasional transient passing through on the Burlington Northern line. They were nice folks, told us all about alternative ways to dispose of urine, the latest in train-hopping techniques, as well as the best way to falsify disability claims if you, you know, ever miss the train jump. But all those stories, nice as they are, don’t pay the bills. Meth does.

Bobby 7: Never thought of myself as the pohlitical type, at least not the type to get ‘volved in an’thing at the state legislature. But when that meth legalization bill come down, I knewd I had to get me involved, and right there quick. … All them sores on peoples’ faces? Ah, hell, they’s got studies out that just prove right quick that them’s the result of excess sugar c’sumption, not meth. Meth’s as safe as milk, but more profitable. Hard to take them there cows on the road witchoo. They stank up that there place right quick. But your meth-mobile (‘nything with four wheels), that can make you profits on the go. … Bobby 7? Oh, why I’m the seventh boy in my family named Bobby. … Was my mother on meth? Well, of course, but she also ate a lot o’ sugar, so we all knows the reason for that there stuck key on the naming cohnvention, don’t we?

Voiceover: If the economists’ reports coming out of the state capital can be trusted, income inequality will soon be on its way out, as the bill to legalize methamphetamine production and distribution, which just passed the legislature today, was deliberately lacking a regulatory framework.

Senator Walter: There’s the traditional path, going through school, degrees, offices, and the like. But not everyone can do that or wants to do that. But everybody can mix chemicals and drive around. Who do you see when you drive around? People. Ready customers. I think we did a great public service here today.

Representative White: Senator Walter said it all, but I’ll add that there’s never been a great economic equalizer like the methamphetamine bill. This will be the highlight of my legacy.

Senator Gus: With more methamphetamine on the street, kids will have a choice between something that gives you real energy and those dastardly sugar products that make you crash 15 minutes later. The meth high goes long.

Representative Fring: Couldn’t agree more with Senator Gus. Candy is hard to eat with only half a face, but meth–huh, ho!–straight in the vein. Maximum delivery options and convenience.

Senator Pinkman: Yeah! Politics, Bitch!

* * *

Ridiculous, right? I hope you can all be good sports and see the humor in this ultra-hyperbole. It’s what we do here at the Family Farce. But it does make me wonder: I ate some bread today. It had gluten in it. How long until the mundane becomes the monstrous? The illicit the indispensable? Time can do weird things to the sensibilities of the populace.

But until that day the states go Breaking Bad, pass the wheat.

Hold the meth.