Josh Freed: Smart devices, hear my words — no, not birds, words!



Our new smart devices might be too smart for us to communicate with.

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I bought a new voice-recognition “smart” appliance recently that’s so smart I can barely speak to it.

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It’s my humidifier. Among many voice commands I can give it are: “Hey humidifier, raise the humidity!” and “Hey humidifier, lower the humidity!”

Also: “Set the humidifier mist to low,” or “Play misty for me”. Sorry, that last one is a joke only my humidifier can appreciate.

My machine is the latest in a new series of smart appliances that obey many voice commands — but only if you can remember all the commands.

I’ve tried saying simply “less humidity” or “more humid,” but you have to get the long commands above exactly right, or it doesn’t understand.

Even then, it often seems hard of hearing, and won’t respond unless I lean in close and speak slowly and moistly, the way humidifiers like.

Welcome to the future. This year alone, North Americans are expected to buy 100 million “connected” home gadgets, many with voice recognition capability, from voice-activated lights, doors, thermostats and stoves to robot vacuum cleaners you can tell: “Just clean up a little for the cleaning lady.”

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But I wonder: are we humans smart enough for our smart new machines?

My humidifier is behaving better than my smart TV, which has stopped listening to me lately. We’d been getting along passably, as long as I pronounced my show requests ve-ry clear-ly.

Things went OK if I asked to watch  “The Val … hall … a  Murders”,  or “Baby-lon Ber … lin”.

But I rarely pronounce “Shtisel” to its satisfaction, so instead it offers shows like It’s Supernatural or Crikey! It’s the Irwins.

Recently when I asked for “Little Women” it offered The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.

Frequently, my TV will just bark at me in a patronizing voice, like a government tax auditor, saying: “Voice not recognized — ERROR 324!”

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My first reaction is often just to repeat it louder, like when you’re talking to people who don’t speak your language — and equally futile.

Let alone Quebec francophone shows like Fugueuse or Faits divers. where my TV has never liked my anglo accent and simply says: “Cette émission n’est pas disponible,” though it instantly offers the same shows if I type the titles on its keyboard.

But even all that looks great in retrospect. Two weeks ago I opened my TV and saw an onscreen announcement saying the voice-recognition system was “inoperative” until I signed a new user agreement.

But I couldn’t figure out how to sign it, since my TV’s not talking to me until I do. I’ve combed through the user agreement clauses I must agree to for it to start speaking again, but I can’t figure out how to agree.

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It’s a Catch 22, or as my TV would say if I asked for that movie: “Sorry, I cannot find that selection  but would you like to watch Halt and Catch Fire, Catch Me if you Can, or To Catch a Thief?”

The weird thing is this isn’t some Internet online service I’m using for free. This is MY OWN TV which I PAID for, so why do I have to agree to anything to use it?  It should just agree with me.

Instead, it’s gone mute because our agreement has apparently changed. I fear this may be a sign of the future, as machines get  too “smart” for anyone’s good.

Why do we need talking machines anyway, in a noisy, techno-crazed world where there’s loud music, or TVs blaring almost any place you enter. A world where people already spend more time communicating with robot machines than each other.

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Soon we will only talk to robots and text with humans.

Frankly, I think half the reason for voice-recognition machines is so companies that make them can spy on us, since many smart devices listen, then talk to their companies to report on our consumer behaviour.

These companies want any and all information on us, no matter how trivial and useless. They just crave info, any info.

“Pssst. It’s the toaster reporting here, boss. New intel. He likes his bagels lightly done and his sesame bread burned to a crisp. Agent Toaster, over and out!”

Worse, these machines sometimes hear a trigger word and start yakking. Not long ago I was talking to a friend on the phone when he mentioned his daughter Alexandra. Suddenly I could hear his Amazon Echo asking: “Alexa here! How can I help?”

As more machines talk, we could hear quite a cacophony as machines overhear each other.

Dryer: Beep. Clothes will be dry in two minutes, 43 seconds.

Toaster: “Changing bagel timer to two minutes, 43 seconds. Caution: toast may burn, causing smoke.

Fridge: Sorry, there’s no smoked meat left in the deli drawer. I’ll order more online at Pete’s Fire-smoked Meats.

Smoke alarm: Fire/smoke alarm triggered. Contacting fire department now!

Alexa: I agree.

TV: TV agreement authorized! Voice-recognition function re-installed! Would you like to watch Catch 22?

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