An android dreams of automation


Google’s Android guru, Sundar Pichai, provides a peek into the company’s conception of our automated future:

“Today, computing mainly automates things for you, but when we connect all these things, you can truly start assisting people in a more meaningful way,” Mr. Pichai said. He suggested a way for Android on people’s smartphones to interact with Android in their cars. “If I go and pick up my kids, it would be good for my car to be aware that my kids have entered the car and change the music to something that’s appropriate for them,” Mr. Pichai said.

What’s illuminating is not the triviality of Pichai’s scenario — that billions of dollars might be invested in developing a system that senses when your kids get in your car and then seamlessly cues up “Baby Beluga” — but what the urge to automate small, human interactions reveals about Pichai and his colleagues. With this offhand example, Pichai gives voice to Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption, which can be boiled down to this: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being. Pichai doesn’t seem able to comprehend that the essence, and the joy, of parenting may actually lie in all the small, trivial gestures that parents make on behalf of or in concert with their kids — like picking out a song to play in the car. Intimacy is redefined as inefficiency.

I guess it’s no surprise that what Pichai expresses is a robot’s view of technology in general and automation in particular — mindless, witless, joyless; obsessed with productivity, oblivious to life’s everyday textures and pleasures. But it is telling. What should be automated is not what can be automated but what should be automated.

Image: “Communicating with the Beluga” by Bob.

33 thoughts on “An android dreams of automation

  1. yt75

    Yes, not forgetting that this automation is also a selling argument for the technology, while the looked for side effect is also for a major part having ever more data collected while the “freing up” automation is taking place …

  2. Seth

    Sigh … Nick, I’ve been musing if I can come up with a good way of describing the difference in the way I think, as a technologist who opposes hustlers, and the entirely different power-base of “literary” types. This post isn’t the best example in that it’s not simple. But the last paragraph really shows the divide in the worldviews (“… what Pichai expresses is a robot’s view …”). It’s not worth getting slammed for this, so I won’t do a reversed version. But generally, I think you’re being exceeding harsh on him, in a way very illustrative of a deep cultural divide.

  3. Greg

    It would be even more helpful if the car were able to detect what kind of mood the children were in, and select music appropriate for that mood. Perhaps it could also suggest an appropriate gesture for the parent to make, depending on that mood.

  4. Nick Post author

    Seth, I would definitely agree that there’s a deep cultural divide here. And I would agree about being overly harsh, if Pichai’s comment weren’t so perfectly in line with the dominant thinking and rhetoric coming from the tech elite. I mean, maybe this isn’t quite as repulsive as Max Levchin’s dream of having automotive child sensors delivering data to insurance companies, but it reflects the same blinkered view of society and software.

  5. Brad

    Frank Lloyd Wright thought architecture should compliment humanity and serve as a deep expression of what we needed as a people. He thought it was a mistake to build atop a hill because you lose the hill. It becomes something else, its essential nature altered.

    Wright would be amused to see what we are building atop today.

  6. Ken

    Great observations Mr. Carr. I’d say that since the Silicon Valley folks that are well off regularly employ full time nannies to care for their offspring, Mr. Pichai’s point of view does not surprise me. Many have already surrendered the joys of parenthood.

  7. Daniel C.

    It seems to me that there are arguments about innovation, design, and production, but no arguments with them. Once technologies or techniques are out of the stable, that’s it. If each new variable that enters the system is something that requires those opposed to take a hit in order to opt out, be it financial or otherwise, and assuming they even can, then those on the pro side of a particular development have not just their arguments working for them, but the ground upon which the debate takes place as well, provided the development does increase efficiency.

    Google haven’t demonstrated that they understand what people value or crave from human interaction and intimacy, but their strong suit has always been circumnavigating the necessity of understanding. If, through these new opportunities for automation, Google can make the technological go-tos that already stand in for human intimacy more attractive and accessible while they flatten out little moments like picking a song out with the kids, then plenty of people won’t feel the lack. Hello vanilla existence.

  8. Luciano Fuentes

    I went through a “phase” were I was tinkering with all kinds of home automation. I’d have lights/music turning on when I’d enter the house, the kettle brewing at specified times or with ‘simple’ triggers (requiring 2-3 technical hops to make it work) – I even had a trigger on the garage door that would log each entry/exit to a spreadsheet in order to record my travels.

    On reflection, I was swept away in my Rube Goldberg style quest to solve problems which didn’t really need to be solved. Non-tech friends marvelled at the apparent magic and ease with which the home seemed to be “aware” of my presence, while techie friends were intrigued by the paths I had taken to solve each problem.

    I quickly became bored, even frustrated. While everything seemed “effortless”, it was all an illusion. My mind became overloaded with maps/representations of all the triggers/actions that my system was built upon. There was always an attention-tax attached to simple things too – “Will the light activate when I walk inside?” “Should I attach a trigger that alerts me when some component fails?”.

    Having a technology company solve these problems for me “in the cloud” would be even worse. My setup was a burden, but I was still in control. I already struggle to keep a mental map of the myriad ways my phone, pc, and television are set up to “work together”. Imagine trolling through Google forums to unravel/decipher the mess created by the kinds of systems which Pichai envisions?

    Being able to jettison this unseen labyrinth was liberating. The lights now switch on when I flick the switch, the kettle only takes a few moments to boil. I no longer feel like the automaton that I had become.

  9. Seth

    Daniel – The problem to me is the empirical evidence that no technology will EVER be approved by, metaphorically, those who want us to live in caves (or Plato’s Cave) because anything else would constitute altering the environment. I have yet to see arguments that strikes me as far from: what the reactionary grew up with is OK, but anything new is wrong (with a few small exceptions of some very extreme environmentalists, who have the problem that their ideas would require massive dislocation and population reduction, and perhaps the Amish). In this post, for example, imagine “picking out a song” – HORRORS – we are being cut off from an essential aspects of humanity , *singing*. Oh, bad, bad technologists, to literally drain out the human voice, and replace it with – gasp, choke – the mechanical reproduction. Now the child will be deprived of the intimacy of singing with a parent, and given in its place a commercialized, commodified experience. Woe upon those so-called radioheads (even the name bespeaks how they have had their very brains altered) who are inflicting this plague upon the most sacred family bonds.

    Frankly, the above has much more going for it than flaming someone for automated selection. Yet we don’t see it, because everyone has now grown up with sound-playing technology, and therefore does not deem it the devil’s work.

    Humanity is a tool-using animal. It is why we are the dominant large-predator species. To me, those who are embarrassed by that, are the ones out of touch with what is it to be human.

  10. yt75

    About being the dominant “large-predator species”, a quite impressive image :

    And as to technology, there is the invention aspect indeed, but then there is the necessary energy to run it. And what made possible the explosion in technology since the beginning of the industrial revolution is access to cheap energy as much as the “ingenuity” aspect, extracting fossil fuels requiring technology in itself, and in fact the steam engine was originally used to pump water out of mines.
    That our time is sleepwalking into the end of this cheap access, typically for oil, while being dazzled by the explosion of information exchange tech is quite something.

  11. Daniel C.

    Seth – The worldview and way of life that I generally defend is one largely created by literacy; I recognize that. I also use my ipod and desktop everyday, so I certainly recognize many benefits.

    Even so, is it really all relative? Is the human animal infinitely malleable, and if so, are these adjustments interchangeable in terms of ethics, autonomy, quality of experience, etc.? The kind of conservative prejudice you’re referring to surely motivates a lot of the criticism and disparaging of new technologies, but discrediting the motivations behind those critiques only puts us back at square one without necessarily confirming the beneficence of the technologies or establishing that those raging Luddites never had a point.

    What you’re saying about portable audio sounds accurate to me. I don’t know whether earlier humans from an oral tradition would’ve felt they’d lost something in the transition (I suspect so), but regardless, the new generation can’t miss a way of life they never knew. But surely we can’t just continue to parlay automation and expect different but equal results, along with a little new culture. Singing IS a different activity than listening, and choosing is a different activity than just receiving. The differences range from salient to subtle, but to me, the trajectory there looks like it’s moving from things that we do toward things that happen to us, which we may or may not be aware of. There’s no rule that says it all has to come out as an even shake.

  12. lee

    Brad — actually, what Wright said was:

    “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

    which i think is even more appropriate.

  13. Seth

    Daniel – I don’t know about *infinitely* malleable, but the human animal generally lives a life very far from “nature”. Electricity is a big one – it disconnects us from the sun itself. We have a society where almost nobody grows their own food (not counting as a *hobby*). And in fact many people, notably among literary pundits, consider it downright weird to kill a small animal yourself and eat it (with the rather odd exception that it’s more acceptable to do this with fish). Talk about being disconnected from some sort of essence – bluntly, why in the world would one listen (about what it means to be human) to a group of people who would apparently starve to death? And if they’re going to swallow all of electricity to modern food supply – fulminating about automatic song selection seems utterly trivial.

    When you say – “discrediting the motivations behind those critiques only puts us back at square one without necessarily confirming …”, indeed, its more disproving a negative rather than proving a positive. And I think the real Luddites did have a valid point, but it was a political and economic grievance about the distribution of increased productivity between labor versus capital. Not that mechanized weaving was anti-human.

    This connects back to what I said earlier, in terms of power-base. There’s a well-trod path of taking cultural anxieties – “moving from things that we do toward things that happen to us” – and making it about technologists, who really have very little power themselves, but are good targets for denunciation. If you want a more connected, intimate society, blasting people who set an automatic song selection for their kids seems like finding a scapegoat for a choir.

  14. Daniel C.

    Well, I’m not a big Zizek fan, but I think he’s partially on the right track with his “ecology without nature” bit. Technology is as natural as anything else, and any attempt to circumscribe the “artificial” or “unnatural” in the human world is inevitably going to end up placing some questionable boundary lines. To my mind, the problem here is not the desecration of the sacred, but rather a certain hubris toward the intricate ecology of the non-human built world (this is where I part ways with Zizek). I have plenty of affection for the wilderness I played in as a kid, and I do feel angry at seeing it ruined, but there’s more at stake than just nostalgia.

    I forget where I heard the phrase “evolution is smarter than you”, but that’s the gist of it. We never give up on the idea that we can do better in relatively short order. Our life far from nature has so far been tolerated by the non-human built world because the impact was at a level that could be absorbed, but now that our technologies are becoming more powerful and our development more broad, there seems to be an alarming number of deep fissures in our systems that suggest a need to reevaluate: cancer rates are soaring, the ice is melting, water is running out, etc. As you pointed out, large populations are dependent on food sources that have questionable origins and highly contingent systems of distribution, and much more.

    I don’t necessarily blame technologists for being ignorant, but I don’t think politics alone is up to the task. We need a new account of ourselves and our world that allows us to engage with it in some very different way. I agree with you about the scapegoating in general, but I guess I don’t see that kind of attack in this post, more a challenge to some of Pichai’s claims. Calling him an android is a bit sarcastic, but as the internet goes, pretty tame. On the other hand, I think it’s absolutely right to pick him out specifically, because these kinds of issues can so easily slide into hazy generalities. Within the global picture his proposal seems like a trivial adjustment, but this removal of choice seems hostile to conscious awareness and reflection. Media always feed back on our consciousness, but not necessarily ways that we’re conscious of. What’s important to me is to keep an interval or a buffer zone available where some significant amount of reflection can take place. If we just go ahead and start calling ourselves the cyborgs and saying that nothing has changed because we’ve always used tools, then there’s an entire level of description that we’re paving over. Shouldn’t we put ideas under the heaviest scrutiny at a point before they’ve proliferated?

  15. Historiann

    The debate here in the comments has been all about Cavemen versus the Future, and no one here has addressed what a craptastic Future that the Androids envision for us. Why would I or any other sentient adult want to listen to Raffi, The Wiggles, Baby Beluga, or any of the other crummy, brainless entertainment mass-marketed to children? (Come to think of it, maybe kids only listen to this because we underestimate them.)

    It’s not that difficult to find genres and entertainers that appeal both to adults and to children and babies alike. What about classical music? American Roots music? Folk and bluegrass? Come on! It’s not just that they want to automate our family interactions, it’s that they want to do it to the lowest common denominator. Want to entertain everyone and get a conversation going in the car about American history, twentieth-century politics, and the arts? Play a recent album by Dan Zanes, or anything from the Woody Guthrie-Wilco-Billy Bragg collaborations. Try the soundtracks for Showboat, Porgie & Bess, Oklahoma, or the Music Man.

  16. Seth

    Daniel – You may be right about “We need a new account of ourselves …”. But my objection is that it will need to be much different from fogey complaining about how this newfangled flint-and-stone firemaking technology is antihuman due to eliminating the communal firepit, and what about the job and vital social role of the pit-tender (note communal firepits promote interaction, which is good for the brain, while flint-and-stone is isolating, which has been linked to depression and madness).

    Pichai was not just called an android. Look at the last paragraphs of this post “Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being. … what Pichai expresses is a robot’s view of technology in general and automation in particular — mindless, witless, joyless; …”. Because he thinks it would be cool to automate music selection for his kids! Release the dogs of philosophy, we can’t have that. Note there’s no “removal of choice”. Having a radio or music player in your car doesn’t prevent you from singing. He’s being slammed for wanting to automate fire-making, err, music-changing.

    When you talk of “put ideas under the heaviest scrutiny”, my challenge is again show me any empirical evidence that the Guardians Of Humanity are *ever* going to say “Yes” to a technology they didn’t grow up with. That the “scrutiny” they do doesn’t boil down to elaborate ways of saying “New means: Scary! Bad!”.

  17. Charles

    This is not about automation. It is about marketing. ‘Music’ is a euphemism (for people in Pichai’s circles) for advertising. When the children enter the car the ad content will change. That is money in the bank.

  18. Van Sranden

    Seth – Pichai is not being slammed for automating fire-making. He’s being slammed for replacing fire with an -albeit interactive- animation of fire on a screen.

    Forget about the technology itself, it’s about the philosophy behind it, about the question in what kind of world we want to live. Pichai has an idea about it. And, like Nick, I think it’s a robotic view. Because the music selection will be automated? Of course not. Because to Pichai it’s good that kids only come into contact with what ‘is appropriate for them’.

    I don’t know if only coming into contact with what’s appropriate makes us less human, but I do know that trees out of the wind never grow strong.

  19. Daniel C.

    It doesn’t have to mean scary or bad, I agree, and in reality all technologies surely have their share of both, since the human contexts in which they’re situated are so multiplicitous. McLuhan was particularly insistent that media theory withhold from value judgments and look only for effects.

    In light of your points, maybe I can be permitted to refine my language regarding this example: The automation here doesn’t entirely remove the possibility of choice, but it relegates it to the background in a way that makes us less aware of it. That’s it’s whole purpose, right? I think you’re correct in pointing out the old theme here; you can still sing or make fire with sticks, you can still turn the TV off, you can still log off of the net, etc. But what is encouraged or discouraged, thus molding our habits and social practices? What presents itself for attention, and what hides from view? For that matter, are we talking here about automating a preselected song choice, or one determined by algorithms, marketing and money? Do we end up talking about both as “choice”? My personal feeling is that one of the reasons we can no longer seem to muster up any efficacious counterculture is that people are having great difficulty locating modes of expression outside of a system where everything can be monetized, re-branded, made to serve or carry advertising, etc. I don’t want to take us too far down that rabbit hole, but I think that stuff affects what comes “natural” and what we think of in terms of the “human”. It’s political, but it also affects the ground on which politics take place.

    It’s difficult to know where to tie things off philosophically We can talk about biology as some sort of boundless process that bucks any attempt at defining the “human”, and indeed more than a few of the “dogs of philosophy” see the term “human” as exclusionary and conservative. But for the most part I think that, like David Hume, who abandoned his ideas about causality for practical purposes whenever he left his study, we all inevitably return to a world of narratives in which we regard ourselves as “selves”, with values and cultures (ultimately arbitrary perhaps) that enable mere effects to actually have meaning. Those values and cultures can be modified to an extent, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are or should be infinitely flexible, since they are part of the membrane that makes us “us”. I think the friction we see when different generations or cultures encounter new technologies shows us clues about how we are changing our relation to the world and our selves, clues that we may have no other access to. Some may be grumpy, they complain ceaselessly, but they’re also uniquely suited to witness the way human consciousness undergoing changes as its media environment alters.

    I respect your objection, and I don’t think it’s without cause. Certainly some of the complaining is just that, and there may be no new technology that some critics will not object to. But regardless of our positions, we’re all tacitly accepting quite a bit, so overall I believe the discourse is healthy and we need to preserve the conditions that allow it to take place. Even the relentlessly negative have a role, and being so doesn’t necessarily invalidate their claims.

  20. Nick Post author

    When you talk of “put ideas under the heaviest scrutiny”, my challenge is again show me any empirical evidence that the Guardians Of Humanity are *ever* going to say “Yes” to a technology they didn’t grow up with. That the “scrutiny” they do doesn’t boil down to elaborate ways of saying “New means: Scary! Bad!”.

    As Daniel has noted, Seth, you make an important point about the dangers of allowing nostalgia to bias reactions to new technology. Your suggestion here, though, is ridiculous and would be offensive if it weren’t so transparently silly. Any thoughtful critic of technology would be happy to provide you a list of welcome technological advances that have taken place in his or her lifetime. Even if you want to limit the discussion to automotive audio technology, I can assure you that, while I find Pichai’s scenario noxious, I find having my iPod connected to my car stereo a far superior way to listen to recorded music than the 8-track and cassette decks of my youth (or to the CD decks of my earlier adulthood, for that matter). On a more important scale, there have been all sorts of advances in wastewater treatment technology, solar-power technology, medical technology, construction technology, etc., etc., that I celebrate. This is not about resisting the new; it’s about appreciating the important role technology plays in shaping society and people’s lives and subjecting it to the analytical and critical pressure it deserves.

  21. Seth

    Nick – While I’ll grant I was hyperbolic in the above, I actually find your list more proof than disproof. You grew up when there was already a mass-market in technological music reproduction – not during the time the very concept was new, and many communal local human singing activities were being displaced (it hasn’t gone to zero, but it’s now dramatically less than pre-sound-tech). You also had (I presume) sewage and indoor plumbing, electricity, modern medicine, skyscrapers, etc. These were all new once – not improvements in existing form, but nobody has ever seen it before (or incredibly rare, for indoor plumbing). Whether vinyl or computer file, the very concept that a machine can reproduce a human voice has always been part of your world. Once upon a time, people were utterly taken aback by that. That’s the meaning of the RCA logo with a dog listening to a record player – “Hey look, wow, this machine sounds like a human being, confusing the dog”. From that perspective, the claim that you “find Pichai’s scenario noxious” is straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. Why *isn’t* it “mindless, witless, joyless” to use a machine instead of singing with his kids himself? Nobody of the just-asking-questions literary pundit perspective here ever seems to take this on (again, the Amish arguably do – and their way of life is quite different, to put it mildly). Why isn’t he a horribly bad parent and lacking in essential humanity for using a *robot* for music, and this *should not be done*? That’s my point with “show me … are *ever* going to say “Yes” to a technology they didn’t grow up with”. How does one ever allow that (music players), from the sort of “analytical and critical pressure” on display? I often see the objection that the idea is not to reject all (implicit – “culture-affecting”) technology unconditionally – but my rebuttal there is the absence of a framework that doesn’t seem to be reflexive naysaying of only the new (and hence “safe” – I mean, if someone preaches that people shouldn’t use mechanical sound reproduction, especially parents with their kids, almost everyone will dismiss them as a lunatic *today* – but maybe not when it was new tech).

    And c’mon, there’s not many people going around to grumpy geezers doing a routine of “Kids these days, with their solar-power, wastewater treatment, construction technology, it’s hell-in-a-handbasket I tell you. Back in my day, we dug 16 tons of coal, drank our urine, and built huts of honest mud, like real Gondwanalandians should.” (i.e. those aren’t cultural anxiety sources).

  22. CS Clark

    In defence of Mr. Pichai, maybe he’s not so much suggesting that Android should control what your children listen to as thinking it would be useful, if you roll around listening to Uzi Lover by Fur-Q on a continuous loop, for it to stop it automatically once children enter your car rather than have you scramble madly for the volume controls once you’ve realised that they’ve just heard five profanities in as many seconds and there’s another seven coming up NOW. Sure, it’s not exactly curing cancer, but then the quote at the end of the article about regulation killing 100,000 people a year is about curing cancer, and it’s ten times creepier in its long-term implications.

    On the more general argument, although I’m by nature one of those literary types I’m inclined to agree with Seth that critics have to be very, very careful that they don’t just go ‘But that’s what makes us… human’ – never go Full Kirk!

    Except… that if Carr is to ‘Recorded music? But singing is what makes us… human’, then Google is to ‘Now no human will ever have to sing for themselves again,’ not ‘CDs are neat.’ And if the reductio ad absurdum of one end of the argument is ‘The youth of today, with their fire and their wheels,’ at the other end is not a reasonable critique of new technology – it’s ‘Whatever is, is right.’ Which I suppose only goes to show that all arguments need to be book length. Kids of today! With their blog posts and snark!

  23. Daniel C.

    I think one mistake frequently being made here is the covering over of the effects of gradations and subtleties in the “evolution” of a technology by a heavy reliance on the ways its antecedents were generally categorized. I notice developers and marketers pulling this bait and switch constantly, touting the novelties of a technology and then responding to criticism by saying it’s essentially nothing new: we’ve long had audio in the car, glasses or other modifications for our bodies, etc.

    Ignoring the other limitations of this approach, surely we ought to know by now that even minor tweaks in speed, features, ease of use, and other piecemeal adjustments can drastically change a technology’s effects. Making a certain course of action just a little more efficient or prominent may not be deterministic at all in the context of a single instance, but may change entire social practices as it scales. Water is hot, then it burns. One little moment disappearing may not make a difference, but hundreds or thousands of them going off the grid is another story.

    Also, let’s not forget that we’re talking about a single, user initiated application of this kind of automation which is being presented in a blatantly PR friendly way. I still in agreement that even this application presents negative effects, but as I think Nick also mentioned earlier, there are much more intrusive applications rolling in alongside it.

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