This past month an article appeared in The Atlantic concerning Alexa, the voice activated memory assistant that speaks to people through their Amazon Echo Dot system. How Will You Change Us, among other things, makes note of how these memory assistants are now being programmed to not only respond to requests for information which one’s faulty memory is failing to provide, but likewise to respond emotively to everyday conversation and to even recognize emotive states in people through speech interruptions or tone of voice so that Alexa can interact with them appropriately. For instance, if someone’s tone of voice is recognized by Alexa as being sad or even depressed, then the voice activated system can in fact respond accordingly.
Many people, of course, might believe this development to be a positive one simply because it allows people to communicate on an emotive level with a human voice (in fact, one which is being made to sound increasingly human through a series of experiments and “auditions” with actresses auditioning to be the voice of Alexa) without all of the messiness and missed communication that are predictably part of everyday communication with others. Yet at the same time it seems more than a little apparent that this sort of “communication” with a memory device, as increasingly complex and realistic as it might become, lacks the one necessary ingredient for genuine interaction with others – the intuitive response.
That is to say, even if Alexa is able to respond to human conversation appropriately and even sensitively, “she” is incapable of being intuitive, something which all digital devices, no matter how complex they might become, will forever lack. For intuition is a matter of direct insight into some situation or person, grasping at an emotive, non-verbal level what is in fact transpiring; and this sort of seeing directly into the particular dynamics of a situation at a place which exists beyond either words or rational thought is something which computers or other digital devices will never be programmed to do simply because direct insight itself is so momentary, fleeting, and unpredictable. More than anything, it’s a matter of catching lightning in a bottle, so to speak.
At the same time, it is only intuitive direct insight which can take one beyond one’s rational mind and one’s self to a place where someone can actually examine these things form afar. It is in fact the only sure way to at least temporarily transcend the thinking mind and the me. And if one is at least somewhat interested in attempting to connect with a larger reality which might exist beyond the mind and the self, then direct insight is without question one’s surest, most infallible guide.
Yes, digital tools like Alexa may even reach the point where they can be programmed to be life companions of sorts for us by getting in touch with our feelings and moods as their surprisingly real voice speaks to us in a startling display of digital empathy. But they will never be capable of leading us toward a larger meaning in our lives, no more than any organized religion or particular belief system can. For all of these things, because they belong exclusively to the artificial constraints of thought and memory, can never understand what intuitive, direct insight might have to teach us about the meaning of our existence.
There is also something else. Because we will never be able to make direct, physically embodied contact with the information and knowledge that comes at us so relentlessly these days from the digital world, we will almost certainly be moving further and further from that place about which the mystic Siddartha spoke in attempting to impart as an old man what he had learned during the course of his life to his friend Govinda in Hermann Hesse’s iconic novel. Turning a stone over and over in his hands while admiring it’s feel, Siddartha tells Govinda how important it is to love not words and thoughts, but instead all that makes up the physical world. And this, it seems, one can do only from a thoroughly embodied place of affection.