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High Technology Reaches Out but Doesn't Touch Anybody

July 18, 1986|CONRAD de AENLLE | Conrad de Aenlle is a copy editor for the Times Orange County Edition.

Got a call from Bob a while back. And Morgan rang me up a few days later.

But our conversations weren't like the ones in the telephone company commercials--where the guy calls his long-lost uncle in the Balkans somewhere to tell him that he got a new job or did something else that he couldn't have done without the old man's inspiration. Human warmth oozes through the wires.

In fact, when Bob called, I could tell right away that something was amiss. It wasn't so much what he said as the way he said it. His voice sounded so . . . mechanical.

"Hello," I said when the phone rang. "Hello," came the answer, "this is Bob with an important message for Orange County homeowners."

I don't own a home in Orange County, but I own a large wicker laundry basket that I could probably rent out as a duplex, so I listened to him. But I couldn't help thinking that Bob was acting kind of distant and just a little bit dull-witted, too.

I asked him how were things, but all Bob would tell me was that I had a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the equity in my home. Then it hit me: He's got his facts all wrong, answers in non sequiturs, speaks with a crackling noise, sounds as if he could use a lube and a tuneup. . . . Hey, wait a minute. This isn't Bob. This is some kind of machine!

I felt so used.

And then a chill came over me. In the last 10 years or so, telephone answering machines have been multiplying like hamsters, dotting the interior landscape of middle-class urban America. But they'd always waited for the phone to ring. It was never their dime.

Of course, machines have usurped power from humans before, especially in science-fiction literature. In the movie "2001: a Space Odyssey," Hal 9000, the computer that ran the ship on a flight to Jupiter, was just like one of the guys until he decided that he knew what was best for the mission and started tossing his human buddies into the cosmic void.

A more recent example of this genre is "The Terminator," a film tale of the not-too-distant future in which man has built ever more complicated and autonomous machines that come to realize that they no longer need their human creators--just a little 3-in-1 Oil--and start building other machines.

At the focus of the story is Arnold Schwarzenegger as an evil late-model robot--with a few deluxe human options like skin and a thick Teutonic accent--who is sent back to 1980s' Los Angeles to force the hand of fate to bring about mankind's downfall. He sets about his mission with steely, mechanical precision by wearing cool sunglasses, ramming cars on city streets with a police cruiser and shooting people with automatic weapons.

Arnold and Hal and Bob are a lot alike. They are unwavering and without passion as they pursue their goals--Arnold's, to destroy humanity, Hal's, to fly solo to Jupiter, and Bob's, to lend you money. The difference is that Bob is not likely to kill you. He still needs you to take advantage of the equity in your home.

But is this the direction in which we're heading? Will Bob and those of his technological ilk someday cut the cord--electrical, not umbilical--and strike out on their own, casting their human creators asunder? Will it start innocently, with machines, sans people, calling up and ordering pizzas, for instance?

Another chilling indicator of what may be on the horizon is embodied in the circuits of the very computer on which this piece is being written. This word processor has been known to speak in the first person, such as: "I didn't get a quad left call here." This message, flashed on the computer screen, is followed by a picture of a frowning face, as if to say, "Not only did you screw up, human, but I'm very disappointed about it." Will the word processor one day tell a writer: "I find this sentence ponderous, inaccurate, grammatically abominable, wholly beside the point and altogether without merit"? That's what editors are for.

I was pondering this low future through high technology when the phone rang again. "Hello, this is Morgan with an important message for Orange County homeowners."

Morgan sounded familiar. He sounded like Bob. When he started to tell me that I had a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the equity in my home, I decided that it was time to take back the reins of my species' future. I hung up on him in mid-sentence. I, the Terminator.

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