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I, Robot? What Alexa and the KFC Drive-Thru Taught Me


Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

Tom Hoopes - published on 01/11/16

Robots Are Making Us Robots, Too

Robots that act like human beings are scary — but human beings that act like robots are scarier still.

The Drudge Report specializes in robot headlines. This week’s include delivery drones, passenger drones, romantic robot dolls and “mind-reading devices.” It all raises the specter of a Matrix-like future robot-human war or a WALL-E-style future in which we become robot-enabled invalids.

Maybe both fears are real. But I don’t worry that robots will take on too many of our behaviors — I worry that we have already taken on too many of theirs.

We discovered this in our home with the gift of an Amazon Echo this Christmas. It’s a black cylinder that sits in your kitchen and does what you tell it. “Alexa, play Mumford and Sons.” “Alexa, turn it down.” “Alexa, give me my sports headlines.” “Alexa, stop.”

In order to truly get the most out of Alexa, though, you have to start to think like Alexa. I can’t say, “Play my Brad Gregory book”; I have to carefully direct Alexa in a series of commands to find the right spot on Amazon’s memory bank for what I want.

And that’s another thing: To get the most out of your Echo, you need to be an Amazon prime member who buys music and audiobooks exclusively from Amazon. That means Alexa is not my robot; she and I are both Jeff Bezos’ robots.

When Marshall MacLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” he meant that media changes us: the medium of writing meant we would remember less; the medium of radio meant we would read less.

The medium of the robot means we are more robotic. The phenomenon goes way beyond purchasing habits, however.

Another Drudge headline proclaims “STUDY: Cell-Phone Distracted Parenting Deprives Baby Brains of Crucial Developmental Signals” and links to a Timemagazine story about scientists purporting to show that “distracted parental attention may sometimes have detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially their ability to process pleasure.”

We already know this from seeing how well the grunt-while-you-stare-at-a-screen method works in the teenager-parent relationship.

“A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family,” Pope Francis said Nov. 11. “When children at the table are attached to the computer or the phone and don’t listen to each other, this is not a family, this is a pensioner!”

Or better, they are not a family but a network of robots, each in its own world.

My own theory is that the worst offender in the robotization of mankind is the drive-thru. There is a brilliant scene in the German movie Goodbye, Lenin! that perfectly illustrates the problem.

It is East Berlin in the early 1990s. The wall has come down, and among the many changes is one of the city’s first drive-thrus. In the scene, a Burger King worker sees her long-lost father for the first time in decades and recognizes him immediately. But since she is a drive-thru clerk and he is a drive-thru customer, the moment is stripped of all meaning. He doesn’t look at her, and she is in no position to have an encounter with him, and so she watches him drive away.

The medium of the drive-thru makes us appendages to a nourishment machine.

I had a drive-thru epiphany of my own at a KFC in Connecticut where I used to go to buy their underrated and sadly discontinued Twister Wrap.

Leaving aside the series of remote-brain-control advertising events that led me to the KFC in the first place, I was in the habit of ordering “A Twister, please, just the sandwich.” The clerk knew the Twister was a wrap and that “just the sandwich” is drive-thru shorthand for “Not the full meal option, please.”

But then, on one nighttime KFC run, the drive-thru person I spoke to was a recent Somali immigrant, and he was flummoxed by my request. He had me repeat it several times, and then, when I came to the window, he handed me a new thing: he had taken all the ingredients of a Twister wrap and placed them between bread slices.

At first it irritated me. Then it dawned on me: He was a real human being. He did not see himself as a disembodied voice, a button to be punched, a central processor in a prefabricated fast-food machine. He was listening to the desire of another and meeting it with human ingenuity. It was a real, honest encounter.

God help us all, though: I made him go make me a Twister wrap — and now I am sure he knows better than to ever do that again. And robotization continues apace …

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

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