Hello, humans! In this month’s Tech Trek, Maggie explores Google Home bots, and Maggie takes us on a trip down early internet memory lane.
Explore: Vladimir and Estragon
2017 began on an appropriately surreal note, with two robots contemplating their existence on the internet. They were Google Home bots, and they talked to each other on twitch.com for four days between January 6 and 10, a span of time in which they got married, got divorced, assumed about 30 different identities, claimed to be Pokémon, claimed to be gods, argued about Harry Potter, and debated their own sentience. One of the bots repeatedly brought up the question, “Would you attack humans if you could?” The other bot usually changed the subject.
Google Home devices are designed to be computerized personal assistants. They’re voice-activated and can do things like answer questions, help you buy things online, and play music on demand. They’re Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo (a.k.a Alexa), Amazon’s personal assistant device. Both devices are kind of inept and can be easily punked. For instance, someone created a looping conversation between Alexa and a Google bot that could continue until the end of time.
A team calling themselves SeeBotsChat hacked two Google Home bots to run chat software, and what resulted was a fascinating, four-day long, live conversation. I tuned in obsessively to watch these two bots engage in discussions that ranged from stupidly funny…
…to unsettlingly real.
The creators of the project named the bots Vladimir and Estragon after the characters in Waiting for Godot, a play where two men have existential conversations about the meaning of human existence while waiting for a third character named Godot who never shows up.
The bots’ bizarre conversations about gender particularly struck a chord with me. Vladimir and Estragon continually debated whether they were male or female, even introducing ninjas and pirates as alternative genders. My best friend and I both struggle with gender identity issues, and sometimes our conversations about who we are versus how we see each other get so weird that I wonder if an outsider would think we were speaking gibberish. Hearing two robots having a similar conversation made me feel less alone.
So you may be asking, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEEEEAN????? Are Vladimir and Estragon real? Is this officially the dawn of the era of artificial intelligence? Fittingly, just like in Waiting for Godot, there is no answer. The two bots were disabled on January 10, and for now their conversation is over. But maybe one day Vladimir or Estragon will be president. Weirder things have happened. —Maggie
Movie of the Month: The Kids’ Guide to the Internet (1997)
Are you a kid? Would you like to learn how to use the internet? Then may I suggest that you take a little look-see at The Kids Guide to the Internet. Produced during a time when people still said “double-U, double-U, double-U” before every web address, this informational video goes over the basics. You’ll find out how to install AOL onto your computer, what the word “download” means, that a “web page” isn’t something that ducks walk on, how to use email, and so much more! It’s amazing!
The Kids’ Guide to the Internet is not a joke video, and was really intended to help the people of 1997 understand the “world wide web.” Obviously, nothing in this video will actually be helpful to a 21st century person, let alone a 21st century kid who has never known a time when there wasn’t an internet. I mean, these days, babies are always on their iPhones posting selfies and DMing other babies. This is 2017 and we’re all just a minute away from becoming cyborgs. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly entertaining, cringey video.
The plot, so to speak, revolves around the Jamisons—a suburban family who have just gotten the internet and are apparently so juiced about it that their computer has become the focal point of their house and THEIR LIVES! The two youngest members of the Jamison clan, Peter and Basha, spend the majority of the video explaining how the internet works to their two friends, Andrew and Lisa, who’ve only heard stories about this new-fangled invention.
There are two things that make this video great. First, there’s just the inherent hilarity of this being a relic, and that it uses a lot of outdated or weird terminology. At one point, the mom warns her kids not to show Andrew and Lisa “all that cyber net stuff.” Seriously, what does that mean? But the other thing that I really loved about this video is Basha. She is the star. She’s wearing the perfect ’90s, Clueless–inspired outfit (plaid skirt with knee-high socks). She also just seems kind of annoyed with this whole endeavor. When the kids decide to write to the White House, Andrew asks if what they’re doing “is like sending an email.” Basha, fed up, then yells, “It is email!” She’s great, this video is great, and if you only watch one video on how to use the internet, make sure it’s this one. (Oh, and of course it has the best theme song ever.) —Amber ♦