Chris van Schaick: Machines are talking to me

PUBLISHED: 10:16 25 February 2016 | UPDATED: 10:16 25 February 2016

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Chris’s gripe with the needy appliances in his life is sending him in to a sci-fi spin

I’ve begun to notice that the machines are talking to me. Don’t worry, I’m not suffering delusions. It’s just that many of the bits of equipment in my life seem to be trying to start a conversation.

The till at the local convenience store is a case in point. I’ll be engaging in some villagey banter with the chap behind the counter. Then the till spots a bottle of Merlot among my purchases and butts in gauchely: “Does the customer look over 18?”

This question has certainly added to the gaiety of nations… and the staff behind the counter always bravely raise a smile, even as the umpteenth fifty-something man that day gives the same jokey response to the question raised by the till.

The car tries to talk to me – also in a worried voice. Every time I set off in my ageing five-door, it pings at me about imagined problems with the engine management system and the coolant. The boys at the garage assured me years ago that there’s absolutely nothing wrong. In effect, the car’s just being anxious.

But if we ask machines to be more intelligent, maybe they’ll begin to show the signs of anxiety too. It was all foretold in the late Douglas Adams’ stories from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. In them, Marvin The Paranoid Android – the spaceship robot - is both hugely intelligent and prone to bouts of depression.

I know I’m not the first person to notice the anxiety issues displayed by the automatic check-out machines in shops. Their plaintive worrying-out-loud about the unexpected items in the bagging area is beginning to make me feel a bit sorry for them.

At home, I get pinged at persistently by the fridge for leaving its door ajar. In fact the fridge takes a similar view on my door closing performance to Mrs. v.S. She’s been asking me for years if I was born in a barn, in reference to my habit of not shutting the kitchen door properly. Now the fridge is chastising me for a very similar transgression.

It’s clearly in league with the dishwasher, which beeps at me what seems like ten or twelve times to tell me it needs to be emptied.

These are the white goods that have become the pub bores of the 21st century – constantly piping up and trying to engage us in conversation when we really just want to be left in peace and read the paper.

Back in the world of sci-fi, film fans who’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey will remember how the spaceship computer Hal 9000 spookily takes on human characteristics. It’s the kind of story that’s made us think of our tussles with intelligent machines as being quite sinister. I’m sure that’s all to come in the future. But for now, the machines that want to talk aren’t a threat to us. They’re just being a bit needy and a bit annoying. Perhaps they’ve got a chip on their shoulder as well as one inside. 


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