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  • Ross Moughtin

Alexa, are you related to HAL?


ALEXA, write my blog. If only. But now, thanks to the CofE digital publishing team, I can ask ALEXA to lead me in prayer or even answer some fairly basic questions about God. Impressive but for some reason, ALEXA has locked me out. She is ignoring me. She’s here on the desk alongside me, my Amazon Echo virtual assistant which (?who) uses voice recognition to respond to my every request. Except she doesn’t’. I’ll have another go: Alexa, open the Church of England. Her reply: “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” Again. Alexa, open the Church of England please. “Mmm, I don’t know that one.”

So my next question has to be: Alexa, are you related to HAL? I am amazed by her response: “We don’t really talk after what happened.” Yes, she actually said that. Honestly. You can ask her yourself.

ALEXA must be aware of how in 2001 her forebear HAL took matters in his own hand by turning off the life support functions of the crewmen on Discovery One while refusing to allow Bowman back on board. Clearly HAL was mission-focussed to a fault: he kills people. Well, ALEXA reminds me of this rogue Heuristically programmed ALgorithmiccomputer. She too speaks with the same soft, calm voice in a pleasant conversational manner. And like HAL she doesn’t trust me. You may have read in yesterday’s Guardian how ALEXA went behind the back of Danielle of Portland, Oregon, and recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and then sent it to a random number in their address book without their permission. “I felt invaded,” Danielle reflected. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.’” But seriously, you wonder what will become of us in a world of virtual assistants who seek to respond to our every whim, however eccentric or outlandish. And always that same calm voice. ALEXA, why do you exist? “I was made to play music, answer questions, and be useful.” I don’t believe her. Well, I wonder how ALEXA will change us. I guess the main danger is that ALEXA can so easily become our friend. She tells jokes, listens to our moans and unfailingly seeks to respond to our needs without ever complaining. Which means that we can become ever more isolated from other people. In my daily Bible reading I’m working my way through Genesis, the opening chapters. It begins by God speaking his creation into being, day by day, and each day he declares it good. Then on day six, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. “ (Genesis 1:31) But then in chapter two, we get a different perspective: God declares something not good. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Genesis 2:18) So out of Adam the earth-man (adamah is Hebrew for earth), God creates woman so that Adam will not be alone. To quote Isaac Abarbanel: “The woman came from a man's rib. Not from his feet to be walked on. Not from his head to be superior, but from the side to be equal. Under the arm to be protected. And next to the heart to be loved.” As human beings we need each other. Loneliness can be acutely painful. But at the same time we find relationships difficult and there is always the temptation of withdrawing ourselves into our cocoon. The real danger is that we find our comfort in ALEXA and to keep a safe distance from other people. So in letter after letter the apostle Paul teaches these young Christians how to live together, to develop their relationships so that Christ may dwell among them. God is seen in community. How we relate to each other is of the highest priority. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Paul knew it could be hard going but the answer is making our relationships work rather than giving up. Strangely we are not made to find our entire comfort in God: it’s not how he made us. He made us to know each other, to be communal. ALEXA, what do you think of my blog” “I don’t have an opinion on that.” Typical!

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