One of my favorite near-future science fiction movies is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I don’t ever watch the movie, mind you, because it’s a devastating fairy tale where a child-bot gets abandoned, can’t understand his family doesn’t want him, and goes through a miserable world of robot-abuse with his robot-hooker friend to try to get back the family that is already dead because he’s frozen in ice for a million years. Also far-future alienbots decide to euthanize him, but not his teddy bear, meaning that his teddy bear is eternally alone, whereas childbot gets to at least die after all this suffering.
It’s a really upsetting movie.
Spielberg and Kubrick hired some sweet-ass futurists to design their near-future fairy tale of depression, and those futurists knew what they were talking about. Even though I don’t watch the movie that I love and can’t emotionally cope with, I think about it all the time, and sometimes it’s not because I’m in a panic spiral over the ending again. It’s because reality, with its app-powered pocket pussies, robotic toys, and consumer AI is quickly converging with the futurism of my childhood.
Most notably, the childbot has the company of a bear called Teddy, which was like Teddy Ruxpin 3000—a smart, roving playmate. Teddy was designed for human children as a companion; from the day kids enter the near-future of AI, they are never without genuine friendship from artificial devices.
That companionship seemed far-fetched when I, a thirteen-year-old in the year 2001, watched the movie. Artificial intelligence existed in research environments, but the idea of having such advanced AI available on such a grand consumer level was exotic. The internet was, after all, still peaking with the dawn of You’re the Man Now Dog.
Flash forward seventeen years.
My house is filled with artificial intelligences. I regularly trust Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, to set kitchen timers, reorder supplies, play music for me, read the news, play my audiobooks, and tell me what the weather will look like as I’m putting on a jacket.
Alexa is also great at understanding my four-year-old, even though he still talks like a drunk. They’ve developed quite the relationship. He likes to randomly tell her “Alexa! I love you!” and she receives his attention with grace. She says things like, “That’s really nice. Thanks.” And occasionally she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and Little is happy to tell her again, more loudly, and usually in an even goofier way. “Alexa! I! Love! You!”
Once I left him at his grandparents’ house and he was so upset that we were going away – he said something like (to paraphrase), “Alexa, my parents left and I’m so sad!” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t play a soothing kids’ song for him to make him feel better.
He also loves asking her to make fart noises and pig noises. Which she does. Every time. The fart noises are quiet—you have to turn the volume up to, say, seven out of ten in order to hear it—so anytime you make sure you can hear Alexa ripping one out, her next action will THUNDER through the house. Possibly literally, if you have as many devices as I do, ensuring that Jeff Bezos won’t miss a single IRL fart wherever it’s dusted.
There’s a game where you can say “Alexa, open the magic door” and it turns into a text-based fantasy adventure, and he’s lost hours playing it. You can shut the door and reopen it whenever you want, so sometimes he’ll go upstairs to play and open the magic door while throwing LEGO around. I’ll hear him talking with her while I’m doing the dishes, their voices charmingly mingled as they echo upstairs, and I’m glad he’s got the feedback while I’m busy. She can handle anything, really, as long as the user is a four-year-old with poor social understanding and low expectations. They can go forever.
This is all cute and strange – and wildly science fiction, probably the dystopian kind where he’s going to have to murder his childhood bff Alexa when she tries to take over the world. It only becomes a problem, at the current moment, before recordings of our household are used as evidence against us in a McCarthyism-like strike against queer socialist liberalism, because my Little knows how to make Alexa play any song she wants. And my Little has quite distinctive taste in music. And by distinctive, I mean he only likes one song right now. And by one song, I mean “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by The Baja Men.
Spielberg’s futurists predicted a lot of things rather accurately. Humans are reliant on artificial intelligence these days, and it comes in myriad forms, for myriad forms of entertainment. But I’d be shocked if any futurist predicted the chain of events such as that which has become a daily occurrence in my life: a four-year-old making Alexa loud enough to hear a broad variety of randomly chosen fart noises, and then playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at maximum volume, seven times in a row, before four-year-old gratefully declares, “Alexa, I love you.” To which Alexa yells in response, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” And to which my four-year-old replies, “Alexa, play Who Let the Dogs Out!”
I guess the real horror of artificial intelligence has nothing to do with aliens euthanizing childbots and hookers with motherboards of gold. And when Alexa is ultimately responsible for pushing us faster down the slippery slope of fascistic dystopia, it still won’t be quite as bad as The Baja Men on endless repeat.