Is anyone really there?

By Deborah Salomon

I like knowing how things work. Knowledge is power . . . right? This comes from watching my father — a hobbyist handyman/fixer — repair stuff: a toaster, a lamp cord, a toy. Assembling that dreaded “knocked down” furniture filled him with glee. So I experienced no trepidation when, during college summer vacations, my job as an NBC Studios tour guide at the network’s Rockefeller Center headquarters required operating  a wall-sized display that explained how TV works: images are broken down into dots, transmitted from tower to tower and reassembled on home screens. In a flash. That was the late 1950s. Heaven knows how transmission — satellite, cable, digital and otherwise — works these days.

Then, the time I listened attentively, dreamy-eyed, while a boyfriend explained car motors. I even sort-of understand what keeps a 650,000-pound Airbus aloft.

Much knowledge has been gained on the job. I’ve written stories about how a toilet functions (simple and logical, really) and, mid-1980s, the first CAD/CAM computer designing heating/AC systems. That one was dicey: I told the engineer to pretend I’m a fourth-grader. He did. I understood enough — and wrote the story in a fourth-grade vocabulary, for a business magazine, no less. Readers loved it.

That’s the thing: Learning how a motor propels a car isn’t rocket science; computer technology is, and I’m frightened, partly by dependence on machines so few ordinary folks understand. Our human footprint is distilled onto an envelope-sized appliance thinner than an Oreo called a cellphone — a misnomer, since calls are its least-used function. With it, you can close a garage door or order a pizza; navigate Boston or check movie times; watch the ball game or watch your grandchildren — who live in Bangkok. Horrifying news from Dell: “We’re teaching your car how to read your mind.”

How? Can anyone explain that in fourth-grade lingo?

Speaking of fourth-graders, when they ask, “Where’s the cloud?” what’s your answer?

I’m with Michelangelo: “Look up.”

Enter the most fearsome creatures of all named, enigmatically, virtual personal assistants: Siri, Alexa, M, Cortana, Watson et al. The names sound vaguely familiar. Siri? Isn’t she the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? I’m sure Judi Dench played “M” in James Bond flicks. Cortana must be that ski resort in the Italian Alps. As for how they work, don’t ask anyone over 18 unless they have kids over 12. The answer I got: “Siri just asks the computer,” which is 10 feet away, saving me the trip.

Siri, her siblings and similar devices are dubbed artificial intelligence, AI, first explored in the eponymous 2001 film directed by Steven Spielberg, E.T.’s daddy. Because Siri is “artificial,” no need for a please or thank you when shouting orders. But now, the apes have breeched their cages and are rounding up the zookeepers. Watson beat all comers on Jeopardy!  Deep Blue, an IBM prodigy, won at chess against a world champion. Soon, scientists fear, these creatures with a single name (preferably not Meatloaf, Madonna or Omarosa) will start bypassing human input and interacting with each other — maybe take over the world, which might not be so bad considering the job humans are doing.

As a remedy I think schools should adopt a syllabus on How Things Work. Start with filling toothpaste tubes, move on to wrapping Hershey Kisses, inserting cheese slices into cellophane envelopes, then helicopter physics before touching on how the Mars Rover responds to signals sent from Earth, a mere 101.51 million miles away. End, in grade 12, with computer mechanics.

My rabbit-ears antennae pick up grumbling: There goes another sassy old technophobe. Not true. I’m simply scolding the tail that wags the dog. If I need a new kidney, by all means press a button on the 3-D printer and suit me up. But I’m not flagging any self-driven taxi, and if I want a weather report my old-fashioned PC (talk about an oxymoron) does just fine.

But Siri, do text me when you locate my car keys.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

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