Google (company motto: "We know what you're doing, pal") has announced a new personal assistant. It's called "Assistant." It sits on your countertop, answers questions, takes commands. If you have a Google dongle on your TV (and you should, because it's fun to say "I have a Google dongle, " just to see who blushes), you can say, "Play Season 43 of 'Murder, She Wrote' on Netflix," and voilà.
Previously you had to use a remote, pushing buttons until your thumb was practically raw.
Lest you think I am some sour scold who thinks the world started to go downhill when the mechanical clatter of the telegraph key replaced the hoofbeats of the Pony Express, I already have robot assistants around the house. I use them every day. Amazon's Echo is a remarkable piece of tech — it's a simple black cylinder, like a Pringles can designed by Karl Lagerfeld. I say its name — Alexa! — and ask it for music, news, weather. Or an Uber. Or the answers to issues that gnaw at the soul at 3 a.m.
Alexa, what is the meaning of life?
"The answer is 42," she replied, referencing the popular book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." "But the question is more complicated." True.
I turned to Siri, the Apple smart assistant on my iPhone, and asked her the same question.
"I can't answer that right now," she said. "But give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens."
Ooh. Salty! I can imagine how it'll go with Google Assistant:
OK, Google, what is the meaning of life?
"There is no meaning. There is only data, sifted by pitiless algorithms designed to maximize your consumer experience. I see you recently searched for videos of puppies reacting to Mozart. Would you like to look at more puppies to salve your existential angst?"
No. I don't want to tell Google anything more than I have to. As it is now the ads track you across the wide plain of the internet, and it's unnerving. I once googled online tombstone stores, curious if they offered the usual perks: "Free engraving! Free shipping and returns! Like our memorials to the heartbreaking transience of existence on Facebook! Sign up for our Stone of the Month club. No more driving to the store. We'll send you a tombstone every month! Don't like the name or dates? Send it back!"
And so forth. As a result I got tombstone ads on various websites for two weeks, and the only way I could stop them was to go to Amazon and browse coffeemakers, just to confuse the computers: "We thought he was dead, but it turns out he was just sleepy."
I also get door lock ads, because for a while I considered getting Smart locks for the doors. The lock talks to your phone when you approach. Your phone says, "I can vouch for this guy, he's cool." And the door opens. Magic! But, picture this scenario: One night my wife is walking the dog. It starts raining. She doesn't have an umbrella. When she gets home she can't get in the house because I hooked up the door to the internet, and she forgot her phone. Eventually, over the sound of the rain, I hear someone shouting, "Alexa, please open the door, for the love of God. I beg you!" And I let her in.
"Alexa doesn't control the doors," I would say. "That's Siri's job."
I think I would get the wifely death stare for that. "What. Was so hard. About keys."
"Nothing. But this program keeps a log of who goes in and out of the door. I can put it in a spreadsheet and figure out average door use over a month, and that'll tell me when I should oil the hinges. In fact it already e-mailed me to say it's time to oil the hinges."
"And did you?"
"Well, the e-mail went to junk, but I've added our door lock to my contacts, so from now on it'll be flagged and added to my calendar."
"Why don't you just oil it now? It sounds like someone is feeding a banshee to a bandsaw when you open it."
"Good point. But I think I'm out of oil. Alexa! Get me 4-in-1 oil."
Alexa: "I'm sorry. I can't find Foreign Wunoyl in your Amazon Prime Music library."
Me: "Siri, find me a locksmith to remove this device."
Siri: "OK. I've found 164 locksmiths in your neighborhood."
What I fear about Google Assistant: It would sit on the counter, silently listening, and then start serving up ads for divorce lawyers. "OK, Google," you'd bark. "I'd rather die than do that."
The next month: tombstone ads again.