In the first episode of season two of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, ten horny singles are partying on a beach until, up from the depths, shrouded in fog, emerges what looks like a fancy RGB aromatherapy diffuser. Cue flailing and anguished cries. This is no ordinary gadget. This is Lana, Netflix’s fake-as-hell voice assistant whose sole purpose is to act as an emotional sherpa and cockblock the most sex-crazed horndogs a casting call could find.
The show’s producers would have you believe that Lana is some AI created specially for Too Hot to Handle. She has a distinctly robotic voice and is somewhat reminiscent of an Amazon Echo. She also says vaguely techy-sounding things about “analysing” contestants and calculating the “probability” of which hotties are likely to form meaningful connections. Don’t break the rules too often, the show tells its contestants. Lana can and does see everything.
Look, of course, this is typical reality show artifice. At this point, we’ve all interacted with some kind of digital assistant to know that currently, even the best can’t converse with humans in a natural way — let alone dispense advice, set up dates, and run social experiments on amorous himbos and bimbos. Of course, we all know in the back of our heads that Lana is a stand-in for Too Hot to Handle’s producers. The only reason you’re able to suspend your disbelief is because this “tech” is based in truth, right? Our Amazon Echos, Google Nest Hubs, and smartphones are always listening, and at the other end are humans paid to listen to snippets of our conversations to improve mysterious algorithms.
Yes, but also no. Netflix would have you believe that Lana is a plausible example of what’s possible. And even if you know better, a part of you buys into the idea of a future where you’re chummy with your sassy digital assistant. This is a classic case of science fiction informing our expectations of how future technology will work — and if past examples are any indication, that’s not how things generally turn out.
One of the most famous examples is the AR touch screens in Minority Report. As a society, it captured the imagination to the point where tech companies actually experiment with transparent displays and wearable gloves to control what you see in AR and VR. There’s just the pesky problem that ambient light makes transparent displays kind of useless, and consumers have absolutely hated gadgets like the ill-fated Power Glove. James Bond had a video smartwatch in Octopussy that was a real gadget at the time. (It was the Seiko TV Watch, and as you might expect, it crashed and burned.) Today, you can video chat via the wrist and you can technically watch YouTube on a smartwatch. It’s just that few people actually want to do these things in real life.
As far as digital assistants go, Lana can probably be traced back to a long history of movies like Her and fictional counterparts like Jarvis from Iron Man. And to be fair, companies have done their damnedest to make this sci-fi notion of being emotionally attached to disembodied robot voices a thing. In 2018, Google revealed its “Continued Conversation” feature, which was supposed to make Google Assistant a more natural conversation partner. A year later, Amazon programmed Alexa to respond with more emotion. This year, Apple gave us more options for what Siri could sound like so it could be more “inclusive” and Google had its AI bots cosplay as Pluto and a paper aeroplane to showcase their conversational ability.
But while tech companies might program their assistants to be more personable, let’s be real: They’re virtual butlers, and no amount of personality is going to stop you from kicking them to the curb the second they stop serving you. Adorable social robots like Kuri and Jibo? They bit the dust in 2018. Part of the reason why the original HomePod tanked was that Siri sucks at its job. Lana works in the confines of a TV show where vapid hot people are somehow never on their phones, but in real life? No one’s going to put up with a snarky robot judging your dating choices. You’d just pull her plug.
You can see this in another Netflix reality show, The Circle. No one with a working brain thinks the Circle social network is anything other than an unpaid intern furiously transcribing what the contestants are saying. But the illusion it paints is a digital assistant that never makes any typos, understands people with all kinds of accents, and perfectly executes everything you ask. This show wouldn’t work otherwise, but it also plants the idea that this seamless perfection is what we’ll get one day from our real-life voice assistants.
The reality is humans are unpredictable dicks, and tech companies nearly lost their shit trying to program their digital assistants’ response to sexism and loaded questions like “Are you a feminist?” and “Do All Lives Matter?” More often than not, I’m yelling at Alexa/Google Assistant/Siri to shut the fuck up because no, I don’t want to interact with them beyond “What’s the weather?” and “Turn on my kitchen lights.”
Of course, it’s just TV and not even high-brow TV at that. Lana and the Circle are simply there to hide the producers’ puppet strings. But as mentioned, there’s a weird chicken-and-egg relationship to how we fictionally portray tech and what it becomes. With digital assistants, it’s an ourobouros of tech companies trying to convince you digital assistants are “family” to suck you into their ecosystem and further their profit margins. Media unwittingly reinforces the idea that robots can have a personality, and that a future where we have these sassy robot friends is one we want. I’d argue no one actually wants this version of digital assistants we’re being sold. All we want is a polite servant that buggers off as soon as they’re not needed.