Nice Idea, Try Again

This skit from “Burnistoun,” the comedy sketch show broadcast by BBC Scotland, reminds me of all the devices that, at first, seem like marvelous inventions, but still need work. An example is a recent exchange with that annoying automated iPhone twit, Siri. She keeps calling me “Del-fiend-E,” even though I’ve corrected her multiple times. Last week I asked Siri for the cross street of Gump’s, San Francisco’s venerable luxury home décor and jewelry store. Everybody in the Bay Area knows the 150-year-old Gump’s — except Siri. She said, “There are three dumps in San Francisco, which one do you want?” I enunciated more slowly, spelling out G-u-m-p-’s. She ignored me and started telling me the addresses of the local dumps. I finally asked a passerby for directions.

A similar incident occurred with Google Translate, which I used to get the gist of an urgent email from Japan. For an entire year, I had been working with the understanding that the artifacts in my traveling exhibition would be handled by a shipper named “Sankyu.” That’s the firm’s official, proper brand name. But the translated email said that Nine Mountains would arrive in a few days to begin packing. I flipped. I wrote a frantic email to the museum and demanded to know why they made a last minute switch in shippers. I got a bemused call from Tokyo, saying that, in English, Sankyu means nine mountains. “But…but…,” I sputtered, “it’s a proper name! Why translate it? Does that mean that every time my name, Delphine, comes up Google will translate it as ‘Greek goddess of the sea’?!” He said something in Japanese that I didn’t understand.

Lately there are lots of news stories about self-driving cars, robots tending patients in hospitals, and refrigerators that sense when you’re out of milk and reorder for you. Futuristic technology is being integrated into everyday product design at a rapid pace. That’s good news and scary news. More beta testing, please.

This BBC skit was written by comedians Iaian Connell and Robert Florence.