Voice assistants have featured in science-fiction and popular culture in the past too. But now that we have voice assistants with some decent amount of traction among users and the fact that they have become a reality, how does popular culture depict them?
Let me ignore completely futuristic depictions like Spike Jonze’s Her. I’m looking at more near-term depictions of current technology, with some extra imagination.
I recall two instances of currently-familiar voice assistants becoming an integral part of the narrative – one, a brand advertisement, and another a feature film/movie.
The advertisement, first.
Fortune Oil’s TV ads, by Ogilvy, uses a voice assistant as a character to add humor and literally sell the product! The interesting fact is that if you look at Fortune’s YouTube page, you’d notice more than one version of the ad, in multiple languages. The voice assistant too changes from one to another (a circular one to a rectangular one!). The more important observation is that the voice assistant speaks, with spunk and attitude, in multiple Indian languages, something the Alexas, Siris and Googles of the world are still struggling to get right.
Here are the full video versions of the ads.
For a voice assistant to talk with attitude in a local language (and to recommend Fortune SunLite oil in Tamil, Fortune Kachi Ghani oil in Bangla and Fortune Soyabean Oil in Hindi) is truly the stuff of science fiction, if not advertising 🙂
In a way, the narrative projects what the people in the agency/brand side expect a voice assistant to perform, ideally. Now, we understand that advertising is a world of make-believe and persuasion, and fictional elements go perfectly in it, like films. So, this is par for the course, in the service of making a larger point – of selling the product, in an entertaining manner.
The ad even portends casually to a possibility that the device can see what the couple is doing, in the end. I do understand that this is added to add a light, funny touch, but given the questions around the invasion of privacy by tech devices, that is an ominous sign 🙂
Now, for the movie.
It’s a beautiful Tamil film titled Sillu Karupatti, available on Netflix. It is directed by Halitha Shameem and is an anthology of 4 stories.
The entire movie is a fantastic watch for the soulful and mature plots. But the 4th story is my focus in this post.
This story features a couple, where the husband is slightly more older than usual than the wife. He’s not a bad person but is completely immersed in his own world, and in male entitlement, that he doesn’t look at his wife and her needs with empathy. He may, if given the right context and push – he loves her and just doesn’t know what else is expected of him in the relationship than the providing-for-the-house and the mechanical sex. His wife expresses that as sleeping-pill-sex, because when he cannot sleep, he asks for sex and then, goes to sleep after it!
At one point, tired of her constant cribbing about him and his behavior, he buys an Alexa for her, in the hope that she’d at least speak to that device and leave him alone.
She takes to the device gradually and eventually starts talking her most intimate secrets and feelings with it. Mostly in Tamil! She even names it ‘Ammu’.
This is where the first leap of imagination starts, much like the Fortune ad. Alexa (or voice assistants) clearly cannot understand and converse in local Indian languages (besides some progress in Hindi, I believe, by Google).
At one point, she tells the device about how she longs for meaningful, soulful sex (meaning, mutually pleasurable – and not one-sided, male-centric), and then quickly adds, “Don’t respond to this, okay?”.
Later in the story, when she is not at home, the husband is alone, gets bored, and switches on the device.
It is now the device behaves like Tuffy, the pet dog from Hum Aapke Hain Koun! Like how Tuffy took Nisha’s (Madhuri Dixit) letter to Rajesh (Mohnish Bahl), instead of Prem (Salman Khan), Alexa aka Ammu volunteers to play what his wife had spoken to the device!! (Voice notes storage is possible in Alexa, of course, but playing them back doesn’t happen voluntarily by the device)
The husband realizes what his wife truly wants and changes into that man. All’s well that ends well. It is a beautiful episode, and that suspension of disbelief is part of the narrative, as far as the device’s behavior is concerned.
But, much like the Fortune ad, the film’s director/writer projects what she believes could be an eventual possibility from a digital voice assistant, within the scope of her narrative in the plot. It is a leap of imagination from the current technology available – sort of like a story where flying cars are common.
That is science fiction territory and flying cars were predicted to be in mainstream use by 2020 by many science fiction writers across many years. Instead, we’re fighting a global pandemic and no one’s out, either on the roads or in the skies! Many other predictions from science fiction have come true, though… and significantly more improved digital voice assistants may be one of them, given the rapid progress being made.
For a real depiction of how voice assistants actually behave, watch this lively and absolutely hilarious conversation between Punjabi superstar singer Diljit Dosanjh and Alexa 🙂