Robots Taking Over This ISH

Robots Taking Over This ISH (Artwork created by Marjerrie Masicat)

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) reigns supreme over co-hosts Nyge Turner and Merk Nguyen in this episode of Adult ISH. Two high school seniors and The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal get into how having your location tracked by your parents or significant other (S.O.) results in Drake-approved "trust issues." Then the co-hosts become lab rats in an experiment involving sexy robots!

Scroll to the bottom for the full transcript of the episode.

Trust Issues: Cell-Tracking Edition

Closeup shot of modern smartphone with GPS application showing map of city
"All my friends think I'm weird for not tracking my boyfriend ... I think it's a healthy relationship because I don't track him!"
(Photo: DragonImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Are you into your parents or partners tracking you? Our resident "old millennial" and writer Alexis Madrigal isn't fully down with it. Neither are high school seniors Teo Tezcan and Valeria Araujo whose moms both use tracking apps on them. However, Merk low-key stalks her boyfriend (with his consent) while Nyge and his boo share their locations through Snapchat.

Uncanny Valley Test

A cartoon human hand is reaching out to a cartoon robot hand, appearing as if both of them will meet each other in the middle to shake hands.
"Uncanny valley" is a term that comes from Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori which describes the negative reactions people have to human-like robots.
(Photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images)

The creeped-out feeling you get when you see an all-too-real robot has a name: "uncanny valley." Marjerrie Masicat, a designer/artist at YR Media, has the co-hosts guess the differences between human and artificial intelligence. Results? Merk falls in love and Nyge is braver than usual.

Production of this episode was supported in part by the National Science Foundation and other funders.

Episode Transcript

Robot voice: Initiate time warp sequence.

[Music Break]

Nyge: (A.I. voice) Yo, what’s good? It’s ya boy, Nyge. Wait, why do I sound so weird?!?

(mechanical squeaks)

Merk: (A.I. voice) I'm not sure what you mean by sounding weird. You sound just fine to me.

Nyge: Oh well, let's get this thing poppin’. Welcome to ... (coughs and clears throat, switches to regular voice) Welcome to Adult ISH — a show produced by YR Media where we figure out your adult (robot sounds) with you. I’m Nyge.

Merk: (A.I. voice) And I'm ...  (coughs and switches to regular voice) Merk Nguyen! Clearly the machines are in control, so this episode is appropriately titled (robot voice) "Robots Taking Over This ISH." (Regular voice) When we say robots, we’re not just talking like R2-D2 from "Star Wars" or those robo vacuums that do the cleaning for you. No, we’re talking about A.I. — as in the simulation of human intelligence in machines. 

Nyge: Yeah that stuff is cool, but I bet it can’t do podcast intros and stuff like that. This is me in yo ear drums. This is that real tangible stuff right here. You know I couldn’t even get my [robot] dude to say Nyge correctly! First it was like Nidge, then it said Nig, then it said the n-word, so I don’t know what to do.

Merk: That’s really bad, but machine learning isn’t perfect yet, so I would suggest going easy on Robo Dude! 

Nyge: I guess — but I guess they’re still fine tuning that racism dial ... you gotta walk before you run, right?

Merk: Yeah. I mean we’ve already been using A.I. all the time whether we know it or not. It’s technology like that that makes stuff like Siri and self-driving cars possible. Even though some of it is racist AF apparently, some of it is actually pretty cool!

Nyge: Yeah, but what about machines taking over human jobs? And privacy issues? I also read that facial recognition sucks for black, brown and genderqueer people and yet some police departments are using it for profiling.

Merk: Ooh, that explains a lot of systematic problems we have.

Nyge: Yeah, and what in heck are these A.I. robots even learning from us? And what are they going to do with what they learn? I don’t know. Again, that’s why these robots are taking over this ISH.

Merk: Okay, there are downsides to this too as you can tell because Nyge is starting to sound scared. 

Nyge: Rightfully so!

Merk: Yeah, it is right! And we’re gonna get into all that today by exploring pros and deeply rooted cons we have about interacting with this kind of technology as young adults. Nyge and I are gonna get into the depths of “Uncanny Valley” where we’ll try to tell the difference between voices and poems written by humans and machines.

Nyge: But first, turn off your cellphones everybody! 

Merk: Unless that’s how you are listening to the show.

Nyge: Yeah, if that’s how you're listening to the show, keep it on, but put it on 'Do Not Disturb’ because we’re about to dive into cellphone tracking your loved ones. Do it or nah? Hold your thoughts! Let’s get into it!

Robot voice: Danger.

[Episode Break]

Nyge: So for me, growing up in the 2000s, tracking people was like only in movies like "Bourne Ultimatum." But now, the everyday person like your mom, your lover, ex lover or even your enemies can find a way to track you with apps like Find My or Life 360. Some of these apps even enable the tracker to get CIA-level data on the person that they’re tracking. Stuff like how fast a person is going in the car and even something simple like, “are they charging their phone or not?” It’s crazy. So we are here to talk about all this and the emotional implications and privacy risks that this technology has.

Merk: We’ve gathered some guests to share their experiences with this invasive or, perhaps, life-saving technology to break all this down. First off, we have two journalists from YR Media: Teo Tezcan, a senior at Berkeley High School. Hey Teo.

Teo: Hi. 

Merk: Valeria Araujo who’s a senior at San Leandro High School. Hi Valeria.

Valeria: Hello. 

Merk: And also joining us is Alexis Madrigal, a staff writer at The Atlantic. How goes it, Alexis?

Alexis: It’s going good.

Merk: Alright, so who here is guilty of tracking someone else’s location? Don’t be shy because I track my boyfriend like a hawk…

Nyge: Like a hawk?

Merk: Yes, like a hawk. Anyone can jump in. Who is it and why do you track them?

Alexis: I’ve never actually tracked somebody else, but I’ve tracked myself for stories and other things.

Nyge: But you’ve never tracked anybody else. 

Alexis: The thought has literally never even occurred to me. I know it’s possible theoretically. I got little kids. My kids are like 4 and 6. They don’t have phones yet, except when they steal mine. And I could never track my wife. I’m 37. It would feel weird and invasive.

Valeria: I only track my mom because she tracks me back. So, we have each other’s location. So sometimes I’ll check up on her, but that’s because she has it on me first. I wouldn't really care besides that.

Nyge: Like a retaliation track. (laughs)

Alexis: Have you ever found her in a place you haven’t expected her to be?

Valeria: No. I would say maybe when she’s at a store when she said she was at work or she just didn’t let me know.

Merk: Ooh, she’s lying!

Nyge: Teo, have you ever tracked anybody?

Teo: My girlfriend does share her location with me sometimes. But, just for convenience. Like if I’m thinking, “I’m free right now, I wonder if she has time for me. Oh, she’s hanging out in her dorm. We can go meet.” 

Nyge: For me, it’s kinda similar. I have it on Snapchat with my girlfriend. But it wasn’t a big conversation. She just brought it up one day like, “Oh, we can track each other on Snapchat!” Then it happened and I was like, “Alright. Let’s do this. “

Alexis: It’s just one of those things where the possibility of tracking makes it seem like if you didn’t want to be tracked, you were doing something shady. You know what I mean? That was never even a possibility before! But now if you’d been like, “No. I don’t know if I wanna do that,” what do you think she would’ve said?

Nyge: I have no idea. With Snapchat, if I don’t log onto it, she can’t see where I’m at at the time. So if she wants to do anything, [or if we have] like a surprise for each other yadda, yadda, yadda ... we just don’t log in real quick, then log back in. But we both know that we can do that at all times.

Alexis: I wanna hear what it’s like tracking your boyfriend like a hawk.

Merk: We share our locations indefinitely on iPhone. For us, because the stalking each other is consensual, it’s endearing. But I can see why you wouldn’t with your spouse. But we’re all about that. It’s not like we’re always like, “What’s he doing?! Refresh, refresh, refresh!” But it’s comforting.

Alexis: Wait, how common is this among people under the age of 25?

Valeria: It’s very common. I feel like all my friends look at me and think, “How are you in a healthy relationship without tracking him? How do you trust him?” And I’m like, “It’s a healthy relationship because I don’t need to track him!”

Alexis: Let’s go to the definition of trust.

Nyge: I feel like if you need to track somebody, then that’s where it takes that turn from it being healthy or not. So when have you felt that your privacy was violated by someone tracking you? 

Valeria: I think my mom. Simply coming to YR Media, she’ll see me detour to Tierra Mia, the coffee place, and she’ll be like, “Woah, you said you were going to work!” I’m like, “I need some coffee in my system before I go to work!” That little comment she had to make? It annoys me and makes me anxious that I need to tell her every single thing.

Merk: So Valeria, you said before this roundtable that your mom uses Life 360 that tracks stuff like how fast you’re going in the car. And that’s just the free version of the app. So let’s hear what else you asked her about [when you interviewed her.]

Valeria [pre-recorded interview with her mom]: What would I need to do to get you to stop using the tracking app?

Valeria’s Mom: Not live in my house. 

Valeria: So, once I’m accepted to college and living wherever I’m gonna live is when it stops? 

Valeria’s Mom: Nope ‘cause I bet you’re gonna call home for money! 

Valeria: Alright ... why was it helpful to you as a parent?

Valeria’s Mom: It eases my mind. I think it’s more I’d use it if you were not answering me.

Valeria: What if I eased your mind by deleting the app and told you it was for your own good?

Valeria’s Mom: No. 

Everyone: (laughs)

Valeria: She talks like that in front of everyone! I think she really stumps me because I get to the point where I don’t know what to say, but I know this isn’t a normal parent thing. It shouldn’t be because that wasn’t a thing when she was a teenager, so why is it normalized now? I don’t know the statistics of crime, but I think she thinks something is going to happen to me. She’s like 38. I feel like when she was a teenager, it was kind of worse.

Alexis: Definitely, crime way down for sure. My parents had a different way of doing it. I mean I’m basically your mom’s age. They gave me a pager, which maybe you’ve seen in the movies of yore. It was this little blue thing. They would just page me with a little message that was like, “Call home.” They actually had a company, so they had an 800 number. So they were like, “Any time we page you, we need you to call us within 10 minutes no matter where you are,” because there were pay phones on the street back then. So, no matter where you were, you could get to a phone. They basically kept tabs on me in that way, although it’s pretty different because you could be like, “Yeah I’m calling you from X,” but really you were calling from Y.

Nyge: I had a similar situation. My parents didn’t track me because they were not tech savvy enough. But one time I got real-life tracked. I was at the skatepark with some of my friends and we were skating down the street, leaving the skatepark. And I saw my dad’s car like a block away behind us.

Everyone: (laughs) 

Nyge: I just didn’t say anything to any of my friends. When I got home, I was like, “Were you following us at the skatepark?” He was like, “Yeah, is there a problem with it?” “I mean I guess no ...  but like you real-life tracking!” I didn’t want to say anything to my homies cuz they’d be like, “Yo, what your dad doing?” I got real-life tracked though. But Teo, you asked your mom about a time she was glad that she could track you. Let’s hear how that went. 

Teo’s Mom [pre-recorded interview]: You weren’t home. We had no idea where you were. We were worried. I think it was useful then. It doesn’t work very well, but you do get the general idea that you’re in the neighborhood.

Teo: So to clarify, if you didn’t have the tracking app, I could be anywhere on the face of the Earth. But thanks to the tracking app, you knew I was right in Berkeley?

Teo’s Mom: Exactly. 

Teo: So, you had an irrational fear that I had taken a flight or something to Australia and you needed the tracking app to clarify that I was, in fact, here in the Bay Area? 

Teo’s Mom: When people live together they just feel better if they know where each other are, more or less. I felt the same way about my roommates, when I had roommates.

Nyge: So Teo, it sounds like you were trying to push back at what your mom said, right?

Teo: Yeah. I butt heads with my parents a lot. I’m a big talk-backer. I know that’s supposed to be bad, you’re not supposed to talk back to your parents. 

Nyge & Merk: (laughs)

Teo: I always talk back to my parents, no shame. Personally, my method of coping has been just leaving my phone at home. I know it’s a tradeoff. But, I figure, if I’m going to go meet with someone, a friend or whatever, then I shouldn’t be on my phone anyways. So I’ll make a clear plan with them, “Okay, we’re going to meet here at this time” and they can’t say anything because I can say, “Oh I left my phone at home. It was charging.” 

Nyge & Alexis: (laughs)

Teo: Or maybe I’ll take it with me and [say], “It died.” Sometimes it does and it works out. So, I’ve been willing to make that tradeoff. 

Merk: How often do you get notifications on your phone that your parents are checking on you?

Teo: I think I’ve gotten six texts over the past six months from AT&T Family Secure. It always says, “Some family member with this phone number may be tracking you. We don’t know.” But they eventually admitted to it.

Alexis: How does that work? 

Teo: AT&T will just tell you that. I guess they have to tell me. Probably a legal thing. The funny thing is I don’t think they have a responsibility as much to make sure my location data doesn't get in the wrong hands. That’s something I worry about a lot. 

Nyge: So, do you leave your phone at home when you go out to parties?

Teo: I don’t go to a lot of parties anymore. I’m kind of all partied out.

Nyge: All partied out?

Alexis: Kids these days!

Teo: Last year was a wild year.

Valeria: At the age of 17.

Nyge: That’s what I’m sayin’! At the age of 17?

Alexis: Getting ready to settle down, get a dog, do some gardening.

Nyge: Exactly.

Teo: On the one hand, I get what you’re saying Valeria about “This way she texts me less, it’s less annoying.” But where it’s been most annoying is when I tell them, “Hey, I’m at so-and-so’s house,” and they say, “No you’re not. You’re in Oakland.” Then I say, “The tracking app is wrong,” Then they call my friend and he’s like, “He’s right here with me at my house. Do you want to talk to my parents?”

Merk: Was there ever an instance where either of your parents freaked out for no reason other than that time where it’s like, “I actually wasn’t where the app said I was?”

Teo: They freaked out again that same night because they said, “Wait, where are you now?” I’m like, “We went to Safeway to buy oatmeal because we were hungry."

Merk: Oat milk?!

Teo: Oatmeal.

Alexis: “Gotta eat my Kashi.”

Nyge: (laughs) “Gotta have my Kashi.”

Teo: No, it was that carcinogenic Quaker Oats stuff. But we were hungry, what are you gonna do? That stuff is really cheap. My friend had this Safeway member card and it was like two dollars for all this oatmeal. But anyways, my parents again said, “No, it shows you at this random location in Oakland.”

Nyge: Alexis, as our resident, young-at-heart guest, do you have any thoughts on any of that or any questions?

Alexis: What’s interesting is I actually do sympathize with the parents because I do have little kids.

Nyge: Boo!

Alexis: I know, I’m booing myself. But it’s hard. You can imagine wanting to kind of know they are safe. I feel it. I understand it. But also, because I’ve been reporting on this for so long and because I didn’t grow up with it, I find it really hard to imagine wanting to track them. You know? I don’t know, give me 10 years. I’ll probably change my mind. 

Valeria: I get the safety part, but I don’t think my mom only does it for safety. I think she really does want to control where I’m at. If she knows I’m with my friends, like Teo’s experience, I’ve gone to sleepovers, “Oh, where you at?” “Target.” “I see you’ve been at Target for 30 minutes.” “It’s Target! We want to browse. But if I get kidnapped, they are going to turn off my phone and you can’t do anything about it. So, I don’t know what you think that tracking device is going to do.” 

Merk: Teo, what about you?

Teo: So, my thing is, I think you ought to know what kind of teenager I am. So I’ve been to a few parties, I’ve thrown a few parties. But on all accounts I’ve asked my parents for permission. I’m the kind of teenager who’s like about to leave at 11 p.m. [and says to them] “Oh hey guys, I’m going to a party. See you in the morning.” Not try to sneak out. Given that, I feel like I would be the least likely candidate for making parents so worried that they feel they need to track me, which goes to show I think a lot of it is irrational.

Nyge: You making hand signs over here, Valeria. You got something to say?

Valeria: Yes I do. I’ve never cut class. My grades are good. I’ve never been caught somewhere where I’m not supposed to be. I just think it takes away a little bit of my teenage experience. I’m starting to realize that I’m running out of years. What have I done as a teenager?

Nyge: I’m running out of years? (laughs)

Alexis: What have I done? What’s my resume as a teenager?

Valeria: I haven’t done anything that shows I’ve fulfilled my teenage years.

Alexis: Made bad decisions…

Valeria: Yeah! I haven’t. 

Nyge: That’s a good thing?

Valeria: I just want one thing.

Merk: Prom, maybe?

Valeria: One night, maybe, that’s like, “Wow, they’ll never know about this.” But, I’ll never have that.

Merk: So Alexis, you wrote a piece for The Atlantic where you found out that not 100, but 105 companies were tracking you online. What do companies like that do with all this data on people like Teo and Valeria anyway?

Alexis: Oh man, every kind of thing. Location data is one of the most valuable kinds of data because think about what it gives you. It gives you where you shop. It gives you where you go to school or where you go to work. They know if you’ve got a car because they can tell how fast you’re moving, or a bike. They know if you primarily walk places. One thing that happens all the time is that people think their phones are listening to them. But really what it is is that one of your friends buys something new. You guys get together. Your locations get together. Those records can be associated. Then you go home and your friend who just bought Air Force 1s, now you get Air Force 1 ads because they’ve been tagged as part of that social network. And then all these companies try to predict, based on all that data, what ad it is that you want to see.

Merk: Huh. 

Alexis: What’s really crazy about all this, is almost all this tracking exists solely so you’d be like .01 percent more likely to click on an ad or not click on an ad. The whole thing, the whole apparatus, is built on like that one principle ‘cause you multiply that by hundreds of millions of people and it’s like millions of dollars a second. 

Merk: Geez.

Alexis: The difference you can make if you make your ads just a tiny bit more effective.

Nyge: Alright, last question. On a scale of zero to 100, how likely will you use this kind of technology to track your children in the future, assuming you have any?

Valeria: Fifty. If they’ve broken my trust, if I’ve caught them at a party and they didn’t tell me. I want to be a cool parent. I want for them to be able to communicate with me. But I’ll never know how I’ll be as a parent until I have a child. But if they break my trust — for sure, you’re getting tracked.

Alexis: It’s a new grounding. (laughs)

Nyge: You’re being tracked. (laughs) Teo?

Teo: I would say damn near 100 now that I think about it.

Merk: What? You? 100?

Nyge: (laughs)

Teo: I’m thinking about it, and I’m thinking I can justify it because the deal is, I was especially mad with my parents because I got that first text [from AT&T] saying, “Someone is tracking you from this phone number,” before they told me they were doing it. Do you know what I mean? For me, I would tell them what I was doing from the get-go. I wouldn't try to be sus about it or anything. Also, I don’t think I would make a big deal out of it if they said, “I’m here,” but then the location said they were somewhere else. I would try to be less confrontational and be more like, “LOL. This location thing must be trippin’ then.” (laughs)

Nyge: (laughs) Just throw a little bit out there like, “I know what y'all been doing.” 

Everyone: (laughs)

Nyge: “I’ve been there.” 

Alexis: I’m thinking about it pretty hard over here. I’m gonna split it for my kids. For my older one, it’s probably low. For my younger one, it’s probably high. For my older one, 30 percent. For my younger one, 70 percent.

Valeria: Why is that? Is that a gender thing?

Alexis: No, my older one is extremely responsible and cannot lie. My younger one is already kind of shady.

Everyone: (laughs)

[Music Break]

Robot voice: Shields at 50 percent.

[Episode Break]

Merk: Favorite sci-fi movie, go —

Nyge: My favorite sci-fi movie would have to be … so like, a little bit about me. You know I'm a Will Smith head. Anything Will Smith, imma go with it for sure. "Even Bright" that was on Netflix.

Merk: The weird one? 

Nyge: Yeah. Imma go with that. I loved it because it was Will. So imma go with "iRobot," Will Smith classic. Favorite sci-fi movie ever.

Merk: I haven't seen that one. I saw "Gemini Man" though. That was cool because it was his CGI younger clone self, which was also super creepy and gave me goosebumps. And I'm like, “Oh, that's his face, but not his face!” And you know ... there is a term for that feeling. It's called “uncanny valley.” Nyge, you want to guess why it's called that?

Nyge: So basically, you go into a valley and you grab a can of soda, whatever your favorite soda is, and you get some scissors and cut it in half. And then ...  it’s like an uncanny valley. 

Marjerrie: (laughs) That’s too absurd.

Nyge: (laughs) Actually, to help us with that definition, we have Marjerrie Masicat, an interactive designer here at YR Media... 

Merk: And poet!

Nyge: ...who teaches young people here at YR Media about A.I. and user experience. So Marj, we just talked about what we think uncanny valley is. Are we missing anything?

Marjerrie: So the term comes from a Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori. In 1970, he was sort of testing people's reactions towards non-human entities, especially like the industrial robot, a toy robot and prosthetic hand. He sort of saw in his research that as you're going up in this graph, the likeness towards a toy robot is much more positive. And then, obviously, the likeness of a real human is 100 percent. You'll like a real human. You know it's a person. But what he noticed is that there's a giant dip, in terms of a negative reaction, whenever people were presented with things that looked like humans but were not humans at all. And so that's where the phrase uncanny valley comes from — where that dip is. 

Merk: So it’s a straight-up valley!

Marjerrie: Yes, definitely a valley. And sort of how people react to all of it.

Nyge: That makes sense. It’s all coming together. So when I see the little food robot crash into the tree, that doesn’t scare me. But once they’re walking around like, “Yo, is this your food?”

Marjerrie: And it has legs and arms and it’s like, “Hello, good evening!”

Merk: So what are we about ...  what did we sign up for? What are we about to do? I’m already feeling uncanny valley.

Marjerrie: Well, I will actually be presenting some scenarios that you might encounter in your lifetime, or that even your children or your grandchildren can encounter when they become adults. These scenarios are sort of based and inspired from real things that are happening in tech right now. You'll be presented with some audio. And you guys will actually be also reading out some things with me. We're just going to try and discuss our reactions, your reactions and how you feel about all of these things at once. 

Merk: I feel tense already!

Nyge: I feel like I’m cool. None of this is freaking me out.

Marjerrie: Just wait until you hear them though.

Nyge: Alright, let’s get it. 

Marjerrie: Alright. Nyge, in the middle of the week, you have your assistant make dinner reservations for you and your podcast co-host, Merk. 

Merk: Wait, why do you get an assistant?

Nyge: I don’t know, fancy!

Marjerrie: Standard stuff, right? Well, what if your assistant isn't an actual person and the restaurant staffer has no idea she's talking to an A.I.? 

Nyge: Okay

Marjerrie: We've got some audio from the Google A.I. blog where this has been produced. 

Nyge: I don’t see how they would not know it was an A.I.

Marjerrie: Oh, wait until you hear it though...  

(phone dialing)

Waitress: How may I help you? 

A.I.: Hi, I would like to reserve a table for Wednesday the seventh?

Waitress: For seven people? 

A.I.: Um ... it's for four people.

Waitress: Four people, today? Tonight?  

A.I.: This Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Waitress: Oh, actually we need five people for a reservation. For four people, you can just come [in].

A.I.: How long is the wait to, uhh ... be seated?

Waitress: For tomorrow or the weekday?

A.I.: For next Wednesday, uhh ... the seventh. 

Waitress: Oh, it's not too busy. You can just come with four people.

A.I.: Oh, I gotcha. Thanks. 

Waitress: Bye-bye.

Merk: Oh my God... 

Nyge: Yo, that sounds just like Samuel [Merk’s boyfriend]! (laughs)

Merk: My heart is beating so hard right now.

Nyge: Wait, did y’all do that on purpose? That was Samuel! Why did y’all have Samuel record something? 

Merk: That didn’t sound exactly like him!

Nyge: That was Samuel, what do you mean?

Merk: So, you’re telling us that’s not a human voice? 

Marjerrie: That’s not a real person.

Merk: But he even says “uhhs” and stuff!

Marjerrie: Exactly!

Nyge: That was kind of saucy. I’m not gonna lie. I like that.

Everyone: (laughs)

Marjerrie: Well, obviously you’re reacting very viscerally to this. Do you think the added efficiency to do all of this is worth it? Do you think it's worth it to have an assistant that isn't real, to make calls for you? 

Nyge: I mean, yeah. Why not? I wasn’t creeped out by it. I thought it was kind of cool. I want that assistant ASAP.

Merk: Just to think that there's machine learning that studies the “uhhs” of speech patterns? That's wild!

Marjerrie: Yeah, we call that natural language processing, NLP. 

Merk: NLP. There’s an acronym for that.

Marjerrie: That actually kind of leads up to my next scenario. Let's say you are on a website. You had just bought a pair of these glasses but they never came in the mail. So, you log onto the website. You click on the cute "Let's chat" button on the site on the side somewhere. And you are hoping for a refund because it never came into the mail. You've heard that the so-called customer service representatives are actually chatbots who read off of the script, but you've also learned that if you cause a ruckus, you'll be sent to a real person who can actually help solve your problem. So when you are typing away, you just kind of cause a ruckus because you're like, “Oh, I want to talk to a real person." So you're cursing out the system, you're cursing out the machine and you are sent to a different company representative. Together you start cursing…

Merk: Cursing together? (laughs)

Nyge: We both start cursing? (laughs) There are anger settings?

Marjerrie: (laughs) Let me start that sentence again. Together, the two of you get to the bottom of the problem right away and you're even comforted with a few jokes here and there. And you're just like, "Whoa, what a pleasant experience!" What you don't realize, though, is that the service only routed you to a more advanced A.I. So you were talking to a chatbot the entire time, just you started off with sort of like a "dumber one." And then you were transferred over to a smarter one that even made jokes with you. 

Nyge: They do have laughter settings!

Merk: SmarterChild.

Marjerrie: (laughs) Yeah! So do you think that's repulsive? Do you think that's okay? 

Nyge: I think you can’t be lying to people. That’s not cool.

Merk: No! Yeah, why would you lie? 

Nyge: If I say I want to talk to a real person then you just upgrade me to a smarter A.I.? I’m like, “I said a real person, you can’t be lying.” 

Merk: Yeah, ‘cause that makes it feel like you’re a dumb human, and I don’t think people like to feel dumb. 

Marjerrie: That's fair. There are multiple intelligent chatbots out there made by Google. We actually have the transcript for one of the jokes that they made. Do you guys want to hear it?

Nyge and Merk: Yes!

Marjerrie: Merk, do you want to be the human in this scenario? 

Merk: Yes, I will be the human.

Nyge: It better be funny. 

Marjerrie: I’ll start off … (reads joke) Which animal do you like?

Merk: I like cows!

Marjerrie: I heard they go to college.

Merk: Cows to college?

Marjerrie: I heard that cow went to college.

Merk: What did the cow study?

Marjerrie: Bovine science.

Merk: Do horses go to college?

Marjerrie: Horses go to Hayvard.

Nyge: Uhh, they gotta keep working on that one. (laughs)

Marjerrie: Harvard, Hayvard. (laughs)

Nyge: I don’t know Google.

Merk: Oh! I’m slowly getting it. Wow. So, me knowing myself, I appreciate good customer service and especially if there's humor to it. But if I had found out, with this guy, that it wasn't real? First of all, I'd be like, "Okay, I'm gonna take that joke." Second of all, again, I'm just feeling betrayed. 

Nyge: Merk would like that joke. I would be pissed. If I was tryna work something out or whatever, and I heard that [joke], “Hey, bro. Look.”

Marjerrie: “This is not the time for jokes. I am trying to get my refund!”

Nyge: (laughs) You finna get cussed out too!

Marjerrie: I think this is the crazy thing. Mina, the chatbot that Google had created, came up with this joke on her own. No extra human work. It's just the bot. 

Merk: Whaaaat?!

Marjerrie: Isn’t that crazy?

Merk: She’s smart. Whoa!

Nyge: I don’t know. I’m not really freaked out by it because the joke wasn’t that funny. (laughs) I guess what I’m worried about is, I don’t want it to background search me and stuff like that. And in the middle of a convo, [if] it asked me if I heard that new J. Cole? Yeah, I don’t do that. 

Marjerrie: You’re like, “How the hell did it know this about me?” 

Merk: I’m still a yes on this but if I found out this was fake, I would be very sad.

Marjerrie: Same, to be honest. But you know, speaking of fake things and robots, I do have another scenario for you all. Nyge, I hear you love poetry. 

Nyge: Yup.

Marjerrie: Let's say your co-host Merk invites you to a local open mic event. A poetry slam event that she found through Instagram. 

Merk: You’re welcome!

Nyge: Very Merky. (laughs)

Marjerrie: Sounds real?

Merk: That’s me.

Marjerrie: Very Merky. (laughs) So while at the event, there's one poem you really, really liked. You talk to the poet at the end of the night who confesses he actually didn't write the poem. It was actually a bot who wrote it. 

Nyge: A fraud!

Marjerrie: So I've actually got two poems for y'all to read, and I want you to guess if it was written by a bot or a human. Merk, can you read the first poem? 

Merk: Yes! Let’s do this!

“A home transformed by the lightning

The balanced alcoves smother this insatiable earth of a planet, Earth. 

They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you

Love in fire and wind

You say, what is the time waiting for in its spring 

I tell you, it is waiting for your branch that flows 

because you are a sweet smelling diamond architecture 

that does not know why it grows.”

Marjerrie: Nyge, can you read poem number two?

Nyge: Alright.

“Say when rain cannot make you more wet 

or a certain thought

Can't deepen and yet you think it again

You have lost count 

A larger amount is no longer a larger amount 

There has been a collapse perhaps in the night 

like a rupture in water, which can't rupture 

Of course, all your horse has broken out with all your horses.”

I don’t really know what they were talking about, but it sounded a little nasty. I don’t know, two is a little nasty, so I think that was a human. 

Merk: I’m going to disagree and say that’s a robot because poem one was more abstract feeling. And I’m like, it just seems like words bunched together. I’m sure there’s meaning in it, but whatever...

Nyge: I think it was trying too hard.

Merk: But I think Nyge’s poem is a dirty robot. (laughs) I would like to hang out with this robot. 

Nyge: (laughs)

Marjerrie: Oh no! (laughs) 

Nyge: That robot gotta chill. Turn that setting down, bro. 

Marjerrie: Maybe turn itself off?

Nyge: I see what you did there. 

Merk: Turn it off, so that way I can turn it back on... 

Marjerrie & Merk: (laughs)

Nyge: Alright, uhh, Marj?

Marjerrie: Alright, poem number one was written by a robot.

Merk: No! I want that dirty robot!

Nyge: See? Yup! I knew it.

Marjerrie: Poem number two was written by a human. Her name is Kay Ryan. The title of the poem is “All Your Horses.” But funny fact about poem number one. It's a poem that was actually generated from an algorithm devised by a Duke University undergrad student in 2010. His name is Zachary School. It was actually accepted by Duke literary press without editors knowing a bot wrote it. So it's been published! 

Merk: So, he lied to the institution.

Marjerrie: Perhaps a white lie. Maybe he submitted it as a joke, not thinking it would actually be accepted. And then to his surprise, it was published, I think, several weeks later. Then several years [after that], he revealed that it wasn't a real poem by a real person.

Nyge: The robot had bars, low-key.

Merk: Dang, now I’m disappointed.

Marjerrie: So this actually goes into our next scenario. It comes from Vogue magazine. Billie Eilish. You've heard the name and listened to a couple of songs on the radio, but still can't figure out why she's so popular. So you're just like, "Hey, maybe I should tune in and listen to a few interviews."

Nyge: She’s a robot?! 

Marjerrie: (laughs) No! Let’s wait until the scenario is over. 

Nyge: Yooooo! (laughs)

Marjerrie: So you tune in to a few interviews of Billie Eilish and all of the questions feel the same until you sort of arrive at her latest interview with Vogue. It's titled “Billie Eilish Gets Interviewed by a Robot.” We have a shortened clip from that interview. I think it was about 11 minutes long. Can we cue that up? 

Robot: Billy Eyelash. 

Billie: (giggles) 

Robot: Eilish. I have examined all 170 million search results for Billie Eilish and I have created questions based on these results. 

Billie: I’m ready. 

Robot: I’d like to start by saying how much I love your music as well. 

Billie: Why thank you! (laughs) 

Robot: How does it feel knowing your feelings have garnered this much attention? 

Billie: It's hard to describe a feeling, huh? You really stumped me. It's crazy to be heard. I think so much of our tortures as human beings is not being heard. 

Robots: Do you want to go back to being anonymous? 

Billie: Here’s something, no.

Robot: Have you ever seen the ending?

Billie: (laughs) What? Have I seen the ending? No! I have not seen the ending. The f- … (bleep) Have you seen the ending? (laughs) 

Merk: What ending is he talking about?

Marjerrie: I’m actually not sure. I’m assuming the ending of the world or like the ending of life? 

Merk: That’s freaky as heck! 

Nyge: So it’s saying that it saw it? I’m not gonna use those pronouns.

Marjerrie: (laughs) Obviously, in this scenario, no one is trying to pass the robot as human. It sounded very robotic, kind of like on Google Translate. 

Nyge: “Have you seen the ending?” (laughs)

Marjerrie: And you click that audio button and it's like, "Hello!" Does that make this any less repulsive than any scenario that I've sort of said before this? 

Merk: Yeah, I think so.

Nyge: Not to me.

Merk: Wait, why not?

Nyge: Because the robot voice doesn’t comfort me anymore. It almost makes it sound scarier. “Have you seen the end?” Like, what? No. It was still just as weird. 

Merk: I think hearing those little, (mimics robot noise) those little mechanical things, it was comforting to me to know that it was not real.

Nyge: Maybe that's why people fall in love with characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO, because it's like they're clearly, you know ... (robot noises).

Marjerrie: Would you prefer perhaps, let's say the news, to be told in this sort of robotic voice? Or would you want all interviews to be using this robotic voice? Because you did say it was charming. And there were some weird moments, but do we want to keep hearing this robotic voice because you know that it's not real? And so, you know the answer perhaps is more genuine?

Nyge: No. Bring robot Samuel back.

Marjerrie & Nyge: (laughs)

Merk: Wait, so you want it more human-like?

Nyge: Yeah, I like that because it’s easier to understand.

Merk: Oh gosh!

Nyge: Because if you’re reading a sentence (robot noises), like, "Bro, just say the sentence."

Merk: I just don’t want to experience uncanny valley anymore. 

Nyge: But I feel like the real question is ... “Have you seen the end?”

Marjerrie: (laughs) Oh no! 

Merk: Oh my gosh.

Nyge: (laughs) And on that note, thank you so much, Marj, for coming onto the show and blowing our whole world apart.

Marjerrie: Yeah, of course!

Nyge: If I don't get any sleep tonight and I have to call in sick tomorrow because I'm so scared, you can hit HR for me, right? 

Marjerrie: I’ll just send them the script. 

Nyge: Perfect!

Merk: Keep up with all of Marj’s work at Thank you for this creepy, but also really enlightening conversation!

Marjerrie: Yeah, it was my pleasure. It was really fun writing all of this.

[Music Break]

Merk: Thanks everyone for listening to "Robots Taking Over This ISH." To sum up all this, we have a quote from one of the most famous A.I. creations and my personal favorite, WALL-E. Take it away, WALL-E!


Nyge: Aww man, amazing stuff WALL-E! (laughs) While y’all meditate on that knowledge he just dropped on y’all, shout out to our senior producers … aww. (laughs)

Merk: Producer. I guess maybe there’s clones of him! We don’t know. 

Nyge: Senior Producer Davey Kim, one person. Our sound engineer… (laughs) Ah, dang! That’s the plural.

Merk: (laughs) No there’s multiple of them!

Nyge: Dang it! Sound Engineers Cari Campbell and Galnadgee Joe-Johnson, our Executive Producer Rebecca Martin, Adan Barrera for transcribing our social and web content and all the young people, or peoples, at YR for the music and art for this episode. 

Merk: Adult ISH is a production of YR Media — a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation. Be sure to follow us on all the socials @YRadultISH so that millions of companies can track your clicks and advertise other stuff to you. You can also go to for behind-the-scenes content and to get your cookies tracked.

Nyge: Adult ISH is also a proud member of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the best human-made shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at

Merk: Until our next episode ... (robot voice) Take care. We'll talk to you later.

Nyge: (robot voice) Catch you all on the flip side.

[Music Break]

Robot voice: Goodbye.

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