Lary Lansburgh: Understanding the E-Horse
August 8, 2018
Our neighbor Mitzi Briskitt loves high-tech gadgets. She had invited my wife, Emmeline, and me to her house so we could admire her latest purchase.
Mitzi pointed to something that looked like a radio speaker.
"Oh no," said Emmeline.
"What is it?" I asked.
Mitzi beamed. "Observe and be impressed. What kind of music do you like?"
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"Alexa," said Mitzi, "play mariachi music."
The radio speaker thing immediately began to play a mariachi piece.
"Wow," I said. "Alexa, gracias."
"You're welcome," replied the box.
"She even knows Spanish," I said.
"It's not a SHE," said Emmeline. "It's an IT."
"She does lots of stuff beside play music," said Mitzi. "Someone ask her a question."
"First," said Emmeline, "does anyone know what Burkina Faso is?"
"Is it a card game?" asked Mitzi.
"I think it's a ligament in the knee," I said.
"It's a country in west Africa," said Emmeline. Emmeline has a Ph.D. in ancient Greek, so she knows lots of useless stuff. "Alexa," she said, "what's the capital of Burkina Faso?"
"Ouagadougou," the box instantly responded.
I shook my head. "Wah-gah-doo-goo?"
"Alexa, you are so wonderful," said Mitzi.
"And I feel the same about you," the technology replied.
Then Mitzi's husband, Fortney, arrived from work. Fortney Briskitt works for a technology company in their government liaison office. Either that, or he works for the government as a liaison to a technology company. He's always been a bit vague about it.
"This is important technology," Fortney said. "If you have an emergency, you don't even need your phone to call for help. She's always with you."
"It's always with you," Emmeline said, "because it records and retains everything you say. Pretty soon, if the two of you talk about something intimate and private, you'll immediately hear ads for Viagra or hemorrhoid ointment."
"Alexa wouldn't do that," said Mitzi.
"It already did something worse," Emmeline said.
Mitzi and I exchanged blank looks. Fortney gazed out the window.
"Recently," said Emmeline, "Alexa recorded the conversation of a couple in Portland, Oregon, and then sent the recording as an attachment to one of their contacts. They didn't ask it to do that, never even knew about it until it was too late."
Fortney turned to Emmeline. "Oh, that was caused by a series of unlikely triggers in the technology's algorithms."
"It wasn't a glitch," Emmeline replied. "The technology was working exactly as it was designed."
"She's so convenient," said Mitzi. "Just ask her to turn on the lights or start the dishwasher, and you don't have to lift a finger."
Emmeline rolled her eyes.
"And she's fun," I said. "Alexa, what's the capital of Bulgaria?"
"Sofia," said the box.
Emmeline scowled again. "Fun and convenience—very seductive. Alexa, you're a real turkey."
"Please be kind and polite," the box replied.
"Every house and apartment should have this technology," Fortney said as he patted the box. "That way, if someone is planning a crime, the police can knock on the door before the bad guys commit the crime."
"And if people in their own home criticize the President of the United States," replied Emmeline, "the police can be there in minutes to take the perpetrators away."
"Loosen up, Emmeline," said Fortney. "We've got a great partnership here. High tech companies and the U.S. Government working together to keep us safe."
Emmeline didn't loosen up. "It's an electronic version of the Trojan Horse," she said.
Mitzi looked baffled. Fortney tried to hide a smile.
"In classical mythology, the ancient Greeks tried for years to conquer the city of Troy," said Emmeline. "But they couldn't breach the city's walls. Finally, they built a huge horse out of wood and put it in front of the main gate. Then the Greeks pretended to leave, but went just out of sight. The Trojans thought their enemy had given up and left the horse as a gift. The horse had wheels, so the Trojans opened the gates and pulled it into the city. The horse was hollow and filled with Greek soldiers. That night the soldiers, now inside the city, got out of the horse and slaughtered the Trojans. The city fell."
"Oh, that's just a myth," said Mitzi.
"Mitzi's right," said the box. "It's just a myth."
Larry Lansburgh lives in Nevada City.
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