Listen who's talking!

Series on communicating devices, episode 1: Polite machines or how intelligent voice recognition software changes our life. A squib.

Swiping is now a thing of the past. As is fiddling with your phone. Instead, in a high-tech household you're more likely to hear someone shout "Close the door! – Lights off! – Keep the noise down!" even when the kids are at school. These new co-habitants of ours are called digital butlers. On our command they control devices, our homes, and our cars; they do the shopping, answer questions, and are available for a chat at any time.

Often they're accused of not listening or of being stupid, but these accusations are becoming less valid. When these assistants reply even to our insults in a calm and polite way, we put it down to their intelligence. Unlike humans these chatbots are never overcome by their emotions.

Nowadays, the latest digital assistants even understand the local dialect

Robot speak is what we call it when speech is jerky. But nowadays the latest digital assistants even understand local dialect. Communication problems only arise if you say "Turn up the music!" ten times in a row. If you've made that particular mistake, you can also use gestures to control your assistant, as long as it knows how to correctly interpret you putting your hands over your ears. Or you can try a form of control that is increasingly threatened with extinction: a button.

The intelligence of these devices derives from their ability to learn, but this is also their weak spot. What use is having a huge vocabulary if the human with which it is communicating only knows 3,000 words? Engineers are still puzzling over how to protect self-learning programs from adopting our foolishness, greed, slovenliness and aggression. Under consideration are so-called 'nanny filters' for certain vocabulary. Time will tell who is the real fool here.

A device's ability to learn is also its weak spot

Alexa, Cortana, Siri – our virtual assistants are mostly female. The default settings of our electronic parrots can be changed, of course, so there is nothing to prevent a quick sex change. However, what psychological impact another partner might have on couples and families has yet to be thoroughly researched. No human is as patient, forgiving, well-disposed and devoted as a machine. No partner is happy to constantly listen to you, fulfil your every wish, always be at home, be friendly, and never leave you.

If you're arguing with your robot, you're no longer fighting with your partner

But this presents a great opportunity for human relationships: voice-activated assistants can offer some respite from any annoying mothering and moaning: "Will you be warm enough in that? You're driving too fast! Don't forget grandma's birthday!" – if you're arguing with your robot, you're no longer fighting with your partner. And so love can blossom again.

If you think this is all new, you might be interested to know that 17 percent of German drivers have given their car a name, and that the majority of them have talked to their cars. Greetings, insults, thanks and encouragement all prove that the relationship with our cars has always been as close as that with our partners. And every car will reveal where it's from when you get out: the German car will say a chirpy "Tschüss" while the American car will say "I love you!"

Our series on communicating devices puts at irregular intervals the spotlight on the subject of artificial intelligence.

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