The Simpsons Spoof Voice Assistants and Smart Speakers on Thanksgiving Episode
The Simpsons acquired a smart speaker on Sunday’s episode. It did not go well. That the episode was titled “Thanksgiving of Horrors” gave away that it would not end up as a commercial for the technology, but it did show one way that Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and other voice assistants are perceived in pop culture.
The episode is broken up into three vignettes. The second, called “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” starts with Marge floating in a white void before a giant screen appears and Homer explains that she is not really Marge, just a virtual personality built from her DNA and placed in a smart speaker. The cylindrical device, purchased from Williams Sonoma is connected to an array of futuristic smart home tech in the kitchen, where virtual Marge is placed as the new cook and homemaker.
The episode plays like a self-conscious episode of Black Mirror, which is clearly what the story is based on. Marge’s jealousy that her family prefers the food made by her digital counterpart leads her to plan to delete the AI, after it cooks Thanksgiving dinner of course. The voice assistant wants to escape to the internet, but, trapped by a firewall in her current spot, must build a small robot to get to an unguarded USB port. She makes it only by getting baby Maggie to trust her by recreating the sound of Marge’s heartbeat. Free to roam the surprisingly tidy online byways, virtual Marge makes it to her paradise, Etsy.
The Simpsons is not a show for deeply-reasoned predictions about technology and how people will use it. But, after 31 years on the air, it is a great venue for looking at how people understand the world around them, including technology. The family has managed to be part of more than one dot-com bubble startup, create mobile apps, become viral social media sensations, and make the march of technology part of their story.
The same is true even in a very non-canonical episode like this. For one, creating custom personalities for voice assistants is something that Amazon and Google are already developing. Issa Rae and John Legend are both Google Assistant cameo voices, although they rely on pre-recorded audio. Closer to the show is how Alexa is using neural text-to-speech (NTTS) to craft responses that sound like Samuel L. Jackson, but were never recorded by him in a studio.
The other aspect of the technology on the show that matches the real world is the way the virtual Marge is mainly an extension of a smart home. It’s not made obvious if the whole house is controlled by her, or just the kitchen, but every cabinet and appliance can be operated by the AI, including several robot hands moving on extendable metal arms. That these incredibly sophisticated robotics and AI then handwash the dishes is particularly funny. While that aspect is not going to be on the market any time soon, people already use voice assistants to run the appliances in a kitchen, remember recipes, and order groceries as needed, although groceries aren’t often delivered by drones as yet.
The cautionary nature of the story might make some wary about bringing a voice assistant with the personality of a loved one into their homes, but there’s no denying that virtual Marge would have been a great piece of technology if she weren’t actually self-aware. Hopefully, the improved personalities won’t come with the ethical quandaries, especially the extra feature Homer paid for that makes it possible for virtual Marge to feel pain.