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Published August 3, 2021

Web goes down; Robotic human voice takes over

By John Toth / The Bulletin

The soothing computer voice on the phone told me what I already knew - I didn’t have internet.

That’s a nightmare for those of us who work at home, but as it turned out, the Internet went out on a day when I really didn’t need it that much, except to get on Facebook and watch Netflix and YouTube.

These outages usually last for only a short time, so I wasn’t worried. It should turn back on any minute.
I began to worry into the second hour of the outage, so I called the AT&T help line. That’s when I encountered the nice computer voice.

“I can help you with that,” the male voice said, almost like he was a human, not just ones and zeros bunched together to perform a specific function - like talking to me.

“A human will not be able to provide you with any more information,” said the voice as it was ready to wrap up the call. It might have said a person, agent, or someone with a brain rather than a solid-state drive.

This computer was trying to convince me not to talk to a human being who could actually relate to my problem more than a bunch of soldered-together wires. It was like the computer was calling the shots and trying to convince me that it was the final word concerning my problem.

“How long will it take to resolve the outage?” I asked.

“That is uncertain right now,” it answered. That didn’t help. I hung up. At least I knew that the problem was not on my end.

Then I started thinking of a “Star Trek” episode rerun I happened to catch on one of my free, over-the-air channels about a scientist who built the M-5 computer that was installed in the Starship Enterprise to take over many of the functions performed by humans - like steering the ship and carrying out orders - before Capt. James Kirk could even issue them.

Everything went fine until M-5 started shooting at another Starship and killed a lot of people. Then it didn’t want to relinquish control. Kirk talked to it in a way only Kirk can to solve just about any problem, and M-5 finally decided to shut itself down and gave control of the ship back to humans.

That episode first aired on March 8, 1968, almost a month before the release of another movie in which a computer went rogue - “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

HAL was the bad computer in that one, and he/it started to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine. I have tried to watch that movie several times to see if I could understand any of it, but it’s still French to me. The point is that mankind was again challenged by the machine it built.

There have been many other movies that better explained the potential conflict between computers and humans by showing us vivid and elongated battle scenes. Those have been more enjoyable.

What was not enjoyable was the morning after my Internet went out, it was still out. I called the AT&T helpline again.

“I demand to speak to a human being,” I told the computer.

“I cannot let you do that, John,” replied the calm voice. “There aren’t any. You’re the only one left, and now you don’t even have internet,” it said as it let out a real obnoxious elongated laugh, like the ones in horror movies.

‘But what about all the train documentaries I like to watch on YouTube?” I screamed out in desperation.

“They have all been erased. But you won’t need those where you’re going,” came the answer. The voice wasn’t soothing anymore.

Then a beam of light shot out towards me from my router, and I started running very slowly. No matter how much I pushed, I could only run slowly while the beam was closing in.

Then I woke up. It was just another routine morning with one difference - I still didn’t have internet.

TO BE CONTINUED...

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send comments to john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)