Jason McNaught By Jason McNaught • December 4, 2017

"Hey Google, Meet my Step-Dad. He's 80, Blind, and Ready to Embrace AI."

 

For my 80-year-old step-dad, the benefits of Google’s AI outweigh its obvious limitations.

 I never really felt a need for the diffuser-like device known as Google Home until my step-dad (Bill) came to visit. Bill lost his eyesight a few years ago after a last-ditch effort to restore his vision didn’t go as planned, and ever since he’s been a little chuffed at his lack of independence. Of course, I don’t blame him… each day he relies on my Mom to find the news, music, and weather. She even dutifully reads him various commodity prices each day so he can keep an eye on the market.

Not long after my parents arrived in Ottawa, Google Home somehow came up in conversation. I explained what little I knew about the device, then augmented that by playing a handful of reviews on YouTube. I was impressed, but Bill was over the moon.

You could seemingly ask it anything and receive a near-instantaneous response.

When I surprised Bill with one a few days later, all of us were excited to break it out of the box and put it to work. That excitement, unfortunately, dissipated after a few hours spent trying to get our new Google Assistant working. First, we needed to download the Google Home app on my Mom’s iPhone 4, which didn’t have enough memory. Then they needed to back-up all the photos of grandkids to the icloud, which no one knew the password for, and had never used.

It took eight hours in total for them to get it up-and-running, including a four-hour trip to the Apple store and an episode of sheer panic when I thought I’d permanently erased all my Mother’s treasured photos.

When Google Home’s “Google Assistant” was finally ready to interact, Bill initiated the conversation by asking it to play NPR New York. It didn’t listen. He asked again. It refused. What began as polite discourse turned into frustration.

“Get me NPR radio New York 93.9” does not produce the same result as “Play me NPR radio New York 93.9.”

 That, of course, took quite a while to figure out.

Yet, he didn’t give up… and after two days, he was enjoying the news from NPR, CNN and CBC in addition to listening to any music genre or song he could possibly think of (soft dinner music followed by bluegrass, anyone?). Even my five-year-old son, who’d been learning about Diwali in school, got the Google Assistant to come up with a playlist so he could show us a special dance around a candle before bed.

In many ways, the Google Assistant surprised us: Want to know what a Llama or a Jackal sounds like? It can do that. We even played Mad Libs together. But in others, it continued to show us the limitations of AI, even when hooked up to the vast, ubiquitous knowledge of the internet. When Bill asked to see whether or not I could get the Google Assistant to provide him with up-to-date commodity prices, nothing I tried could coax the thing into giving me the price of sugar, cotton, or soy.

Nevertheless, on the last morning of their stay before heading back to the East Coast, I came downstairs to find the Google Home resting comfortably in Bill’s hands as he listened to it softly purr the morning news from NPR WNYC New York. They might not have been fast friends, but it seems like their relationship might just work out after all.