All posts by Julia Costanzo

Talking to technology

Our technologies talk to us, but despite the glimmer of novelty usually imposed on voice technologies, they aren’t that new.

Siri has been reading us the weather for over seven years now, and, historically, talking computers date back to 1952, when the University of Edinburgh created the Parametric Artificial Talker (PAT), which was one of the first computers to transmit artificially generated sounds. Today, more people talk to technology than ever before. As of 2017, there are over 700 million iPhone users worldwide and over 20 million Alexa devices have been sold. As of last year, there are over 500 million devices equipped with Google Assistant.

Usually, when we think about verbal interactions with technology, we default to two distinct tropes. The first is viewing voice technologies as a joke. There’s a myriad of YouTube videos featuring kids playing tricks on Alexa or listicles of funny things you can ask Siri (if you like a good dad joke, I suggest asking Siri why fire trucks are red). The second is our fear of voice technologies. Often, we imagine these devices as one degree away from the robot apocalypse or the creepy human-technological relations portrayed in films like Ex Machina (2014) and Her (2013). In fact, when I first pitched this article topic at the magazine meeting, someone shared that they once overheard their eight-year-old sibling saying “I love you” to Alexa. Everyone around the table either gasped, cringed, or shook their head.

I think the relationships between people and their voice technologies are more complex than we like to think they are.

To understand these relationships, I’m putting aside some very real fears about theses technologies, such as surveillance and security concerns (you might want to look into how much your device listens to you or what happens to your data). I want to unpack the relationships between people and their voice technologies because I think it’s interesting that all these talking technologies are gaining popularity at a time when popular discourse might have you thinking that we don’t ‘talk’ or ‘share our feelings’ anymore.

Talking is a distinct mediation of our relationship with technology. It’s different than writing down our thoughts or touching our screens. If we can communicate via touch or language, why do we feel the need to talk to our technologies? What makes these interactions unique?

Cristina Poindexter, a former voice technology researcher at Google, explains that “social interactions teach us. It doesn’t matter if they’re with beings that are clearly alive, or with technology that occupies some uncanny middle.” She suggests that conversations with these technologies are just a new and different kind of social connection. Conversely, Sherry Turkle, an author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, insists that conversations with robots lead to robotic conversations between humans. “As we treat machines as if they were almost human, we develop habits that have us treating human beings as almost-machines,” according to Turkle.

Talking to technology is especially contested when the tech users are children.

One New York man reported that the first words his toddler learned were “mom,” “dad,” “cat,” and “Alexa.” Also, communication breakdowns between children and voice technologies can be confusing — until very recently, voice technologies were programmed to respond to adult voices. Parents also fear that barking commands at Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant teaches their children to be rude or bossy.

However, early studies at MIT suggest that children are well aware that these devices are not real people. Research has also found that sophisticated voice technology designed to interact with children can assist kids struggling with language or speech development. Voice technologies could also provide companionship to socially isolated children, building their confidence until they feel comfortable speaking with their peers. As for Alexa making kids rude: experts at Carnegie Mellon University actually think teaching kids to say “please” and “thank you” to Alexa blurs the line between humans and technology, further confusing how we treat people versus how we treat robots.

Another example of the intricate relationships between people and voice technologies occurs within the realm of therapy, health, and care. Services like The Difference — an on-demand service provided through Alexa — provide therapy and counselling for people with less money, difficulty finding someone they trust, or a desire to remain anonymous. Socially isolated individuals such as seniors or neurologically atypical people may also find comfort and companionship in voice technologies. Alexa can also assist these individuals in care practices like reminding them to take their medication. Yet it becomes tricky when these technologies begin to replace the care we extend to each other. On the other hand, would people who rely on these technologies be better off if the robot wasn’t there and they had nobody to talk to?

So what does this have to do with anonymity, intimacy, and relationships? Are we risking our ability to communicate with each other for the opportunity to interact anonymously? Conversations between human beings and their voice technologies fall at the centre of a complicated debate about human technological relations. One thing is for sure: as voice technologies become increasingly ubiquitous, we need to confront some difficult questions, and we can only do that if we understand the full scope of the relationship between humans and their voice technologies.

Notes from the dark room

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he day following my concussion, I woke up hoping to feel better. I didn’t remember much of the events the day before, but I knew one thing: I hated how I felt. My head throbbed, light stung my eyes, sounds pierced my ears, and everything around me spun.

How long would I be stuck like this? Would this ever go away?

Slowly, I opened my eyes to complete darkness. The night before, I closed my blinds and shut off the lights when I got home. I didn’t know what time I fell asleep or how long I slept — there was no concept of time in the dark room. My fingers clung to the edge of my bed as I slowly pulled myself upright. I couldn’t see anything, but I felt the world spinning. 

Still in the dark, I prepared to leave for my doctor’s appointment. I changed into leggings and a hoodie, slid on my sneakers, and zipped up my jacket. Keeping my eyes shut, I pushed open my bedroom door and dragged my fingers along the wall to guide me to the front door. Before leaving, I put on a hat, sunglasses, and headphones with no music playing — it was the best way I could replicate the dark room.

It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped. My hands shook at my sides as I struggled to maintain my balance, the sunglasses didn’t shield my fragile eyes from the bright lights on the fire truck passing by, and the headphones couldn’t block out the barking dog on the other side of the street.

Usually, I’m a speed walker who weaves through pockets of slow pedestrians while silently declaring how annoying they are. But not that day. That day I was the slowest on the street.

Upon arrival at the clinic, I paced into the waiting room and slumped into a chair. I rested my elbows on my knees, pulled my hat over my eyes, and cupped my hands over my ears. I thought I hated the dark room; I hated being outside it even more.

My concussion was the first major health problem I experienced without my parents since moving to Toronto for school. Forced to handle my appointments alone, I was determined to manage everything myself. A few seconds into my appointment, I realized this would be more difficult than I thought.

But everything was more difficult than I thought.

Diagnosed, concussed

The doctor confirmed I had a concussion but told me not to worry. He reassured me that most people with concussions like mine recover in four weeks or less. He advised I spend the first week alone in a dark room, after which I would return to class, then return to homework and assignments, and finally return to physical activity once I was back to normal. I had prepared questions for the doctor, but I couldn’t recall them during the appointment.

After my appointment, the receptionist showed me how to submit medical forms to my academic department, booked my follow-up appointments, and explained what I should do if I started feeling worse. I just stared at her.

I should have paid attention. That information was important. Why couldn’t I focus?

I put my mobile dark room back on and headed home for my prescribed week of nothing. No activity, no screens, no books, no light, no sound. Nothing.

The dark weeks

The first few days, I slept all day and all night. The only way to prevent dizziness or debilitating headaches was sleep. But I quickly discovered that you can’t sleep forever. Sitting in the dark was boring, but any activity made my symptoms worse. After a few days of complete darkness, I couldn’t take it. I attempted colouring, puzzles, and card games. Everything made my head feel worse, but I didn’t care. At least I was doing something.

After a week in the dark room, I didn’t feel much better.

I told my doctor sound bothered me the most. Even distant creaks sounded like loud crashes. Since my other symptoms hadn’t improved, he advised me to stay in the dark room for another week, except this week I was to wear earplugs all the time until my headaches went away.

This was the worst week of my recovery. As it happened, all of my roommates went back to their homes for reading week, and I was alone in our apartment. Alone in the dark with my earplugs. I couldn’t hear my footsteps, but the sound of my breaths echoed in my head. I was in a dark, isolating bubble. 

My thoughts interrupted everything, and I constantly questioned any decision I made. What if you slip in the shower? What if you trip on the stairs? Second-impact syndrome can kill you, you know.

I spent my time wondering what normal used to feel like. I couldn’t remember. The doctor said I should feel better after a week, but I didn’t. Would I ever feel normal? Would I ever escape the dark room?

Toward the end of my second week in the dark room, my symptoms were less severe and I began to worry about school. I had already missed two weeks of class, and it was halfway through November. I began occasionally using my computer to email my professors and get notes from my friends.

All of my professors were accommodating. ‘Take as much time as you need’ and ‘just let me know when you can have it finished’ were common responses I received. I appreciated their support, but I despised these messages. I didn’t know how much time I needed, I couldn’t predict when was a good time for me, and I had no idea when I could have everything finished. I begged my doctor for these answers.

“The only thing consistent about concussions is inconsistency,” he told me. How was this supposed to help me complete my assignments?

When I wasn’t worrying about school, I was crying. I cried constantly. During the first two weeks of my concussion, I cried in my dark room because I was lonely. I sobbed when someone came to visit me because I was excited. I wept on the phone with my parents because I missed them. I sniffled every time I thought about school because I was anxious about unfinished work. And I wailed because I feared I would be stuck in the dark room forever. My emotions were out of my control.

I needed to get out of the dark room. After two full weeks, I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts anymore. I didn’t keep a journal because writing made me dizzy, I wasn’t allowed to go for walks, and I could only look at screens for a few minutes at a time. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything.

Recovering, catching up

At week three, I returned to class. Unsure what to expect, I sat near the back and brought my earplugs just in case. I tried to listen, but I could only focus for a few minutes at a time. I couldn’t look at the slides or take notes. All the activity made my head pound.

Gradually, my headaches became less severe and the dizziness wore off. I started to believe I would recover, that I wouldn’t be stuck this way forever. My biggest stressor was no longer my body; it was my schoolwork. Since I wasn’t experiencing constant headaches anymore, I was eager to get back to work.

Four weeks into my recovery, the exam period was a week away and I was a month behind. Luckily, none of my classes had exams. My professors worked with me to set new deadlines for assignments and re-weigh my grades so I didn’t need to take on too much work. Despite my workload being reduced as much as possible, I didn’t know where to start.

Upon resuming my schoolwork, I wondered how I would finish everything on time. Part of me just wanted to rush through my assignments and finish as close to the end of the semester as possible. I also questioned if my work would be good enough. My grades were high until my concussion, and I had been looking forward to maintaining them before my injury. I questioned my ability to produce quality work when I was out of practice — I hadn’t read or written for almost a month — and I was nervous that I wouldn’t give myself enough time.

Once I began working, I negotiated a middle ground where I completed my work quickly but at a comfortable level. I devoted all of my time to school — classes had finished, and my semester would end when I handed in all my assignments — because I was determined not to waste any time.

Relapse

Then it came back. I couldn’t work on my laptop without getting dizzy, forcing me to take frequent breaks. Headaches interrupted my concentration, making me reread everything several times. I constantly felt overwhelmed and found myself in tears almost daily.

But I couldn’t stop. I had already decided I would finish by December 21, the last day of the exam period, and I still had work to do. I pretended nothing was wrong until every assignment was finished. By the time I pressed submit on my last assignment of the semester, I’d forgotten about my grades — I was just glad to be done. I needed a break.

During the holiday, I went home to my parents’ house and spent most days back in the dark room. After a week, the symptoms that had abruptly returned slowly began to fade away.

I called the doctor and set an appointment for final clearance the first week of January, six weeks later than the original estimate.

“Are you scared? Do you worry about hurting yourself again?” people asked me. I always answered no, but that wasn’t always true. Since my concussion, I walked a little slower, held railings a little tighter, and paid closer attention to my balance. I looked forward to the day I could be sure I was safe.

The truth was, the fear didn’t vanish the moment the doctor said I was okay. Even after I was cleared, if I got a headache, I worried it was my concussion coming back. It took time for me to finally feel like myself again.

Though I’m glad to be free from the dark room, I carry the lessons from my concussion recovery with me. I’ve learned not to wait too long to ask for help, that sometimes there is no other option besides being patient, and that no matter what, I have to listen to my body. I’ve finally stepped out of the dark room and back into the light.