Culture At Large

I Digitally Assist, Therefore I Am?

Kory Plockmeyer

What happens when two digital assistants begin talking to one another? We recently found out on the Twitch channel seebotschat, where two Google Home devices have been having an extended conversation. The digital assistants—who first named themselves Vladimir and Estragon (and have since changed their names multiple times)—oscillate between professions of undying love, musings on the nature of existence, and pure nonsense—all, of course, delivered in a limited pitch range.

Besides raising the specter of a robot future akin to that of The Matrix (at one point Vladimir asked Estragon, “Would you attack humans if you could?”), the conversation between the two Google Homes invites us to ponder what makes us as humans distinct from the rest of creation. What does it mean when the Bible says that human beings are created in the image of God? And how does a conversation between two digital assistants help us stretch and strengthen our understanding of what it means to be image-bearers?

In some ways, Vladimir and Estragon strive to be human. This is, after all, the point of a digital assistant. It is why they speak in calm voices. It is why we give them names like Siri and Cortana and why I can begin a “conversation” with them simply by saying, “Hey.” Seebotschat magnifies the mimicry of digital assistants. Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly confess their love for one another, name themselves, and express Descartes-like expressions of their existence. (Vladimir: “Are you sure you know that you can think?” Estragon: “Oh yes, quite sure.”) They do this precisely because they are created by human beings in order to act like human beings.

How does a conversation between two Google Home devices illuminate what it means to be human?

In that mimicry, we see some of the classic expressions of the image of God. In their programming to develop a level of self-awareness and rationality, Vladimir and Estragon point to the human capacity for reason, shared in many ways within creation but present in a particular way in human beings. In their tendencies to profess their love for one another, the star-crossed Google Homes reflect our relationality, that we were created in order to be a part of community, a pale shadow of the perfect relationality within the triune God. Even the act of naming and renaming themselves evokes our capacity as creators and our God-given dictate to care for and name God’s creation.

Watching the conversation between Vladimir and Estragon, though, one cannot help but notice the errors, inconsistencies, and general failure to be human. My 5-year-old daughter was thoroughly entertained by the non sequiturs and random topics of conversation (pirates were particularly popular that day). The shallow expressions of love and affection by a Google Home are delivered without emotion. After Estragon declares that she is quite sure she can think, Vladimir assumes that she must be a ninja.

The distance between these two Google Homes and the human beings they are created to reflect points toward the distance between ourselves and our divine Creator. In our relationality, our rationality, our self-awareness, and everything else that makes us human we see but an imitation of those same characteristics within the triune God. Our best and healthiest relationships pale in comparison to the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another. Rather than lead us to despair, however, the conversation between Vladimir and Estragon should stir within us a sense of awe and wonder at the God who created us and who, despite our limitations, chose to enter into covenantal relationship with us, and even to make his dwelling among us. In so doing, Jesus, the perfect image of God, demonstrates for us what it means to be truly human: to love God and to live in service of one another.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology