When automation frustration kills: The X-Files does smart home disasters

"You suck Mr. Phone"

The X-Files does smart home screw ups

The genius idea in The X-Files episode Rm9sbG93ZXJz (one of Season 11's "good ones") is that – spoiler alert – killer robots will hunt you down if you don't leave a tip for their robot restaurant brethren.

Mixed in with that tech-will-literally-kill-us plotline, though, is a hell of a lot of smart home screw ups, played for both comedy and scares. More of the "this tech is killing us" facepalm variety.

Some of it reads like a Black Mirror scene that belongs in the trash, sure, but amongst the automated apartment hi-jinks and robot vacuum cleaner rowdiness is a big old riff on troubleshooting hyper futuristic tech.

Because when always on, always sensing, always automated ambient computing works, it really works. But when it doesn't work, when something goes wrong, connected tech needs to let us do things "old school" – as a curmudgeonly Fox Mulder would say – to just get them done.


The robot restaurant

The episode starts out in a Japanese restaurant called Forowa ("follower"), where Mulder and Scully are having some sort of (dialogue free) date. It's all iPad-style ordering, no other customers, sushi that automatically appears from the counter on trays until Mulder gets an adorable (not edible) Blobfish as his special and heads to the kitchen to complain.

Then we get the reveal that the whole restaurant is staffed by robots and robotic arms, some of which have ominous looking red "eyes". Scully gets a bunch of alerts asking her to follow the restaurant on social media, rate her meal etc. Mulder pays, presses "no" to a tip and then can't get his credit card out of the machine.

Now, connected hotels, which try to guess what we want before we want it, are very much here, and we're sure connected, robot restaurants (beyond tourist-y gimmicks) will follow. Scully's experience was A-OK, she ordered her sushi, got her sushi, she ate her sushi. But who will we complain to when we're served a Blobfish? Will customer service AI ever be able to replicate the ego-stroking and body language of a real, apologetic waiter when a restaurant gets your order wrong?


The connected car

Next up: self-driving cars, obviously. Scully calls a Whipz (Uber) and an autonomous one shows up. Considering the AI and robots she's seen go bad over the years, she is understandably a bit perturbed but she does also, you know, get in.

Cue the car driving recklessly as Scully tells it off for speeding. Much more interesting is her interaction with the creepy on-screen emoji that serves as in-car butler. The yellow face, which has soulless brown eyes and a cartoon chauffeur hat, starts by saying "Tell me how I can make your ride more enjoyable" to which Scully says "Be quiet", a command that's completely ignored.

Instead, it asks her how she wants to be entertained in the backseat – "Do you want to watch television? Music? You can say names of artists or songs". She keeps replying "No, no music, be quiet" before finally getting a sad face emoji and an "Alright, taking you home." This gets to the heart of the balance between contextual suggestions and just plain irritating that Amazon and Google are working on for their own real-life AI assistants. Turns out when you add a Beauty And The Beast ad to morning smart speaker briefings, that's a no.

Scully screams "Who am I talking to?!" and speaks for all of us


At one point, while trying to get the car to slow down or pull over and just getting a placid emoji smile in return, Scully screams "Who am I talking to?!" At that moment she is speaking for all of us when we just want to sort things out with another human being, not a machine that doesn't understand us. The solution isn't actually building an assistant that knows everything (that's gonna take a while) but designers at Google are actually more pre-occupied with building an assistant that knows what it doesn't know and what to do next. Scully, meanwhile, does eventually get home, where she's asked to rate her ride: "Terrible, awful, never again".

Mulder's car ride, in which he is driving, is less eventful. It does include a nice bit where he asks his in-car system for Controversy by Prince, resorting to slow, near-phonetics on the second attempt, though. He gets Teach The Children Well by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young instead – an eerie motif that comes back at the house. Asking for one song and getting another is not near-future sci-fi; this is all of us, right now, in our homes.


Scully's smart home goes berserk

Now we're really cooking. For the reason that this episode requires her to, Scully lives in some kind of luxe, fully automated apartment – right down to the external doors that say "front door open" out loud.

While Mulder is shouting into a credit card call centre line and getting chased by a swarm of drones, Scully is playing around with her toys at home, including a 'Zuemz 9000' robot vacuum cleaner. This is mysteriously delivered (via drone), does a spot of hoovering, goes nuts then you know, comes back to life in the rubbish bin. Turns out it's scanning her place so it can help set fire to it later.

More prescient – the moment where she throws her finished Rock It Like a Redhead styling cream (cute) into the bathroom bin and instantly gets a push alert on her phone from Normuz (Amazon) asking if she'd like to buy it again. Ditto when the robot vac nudges her 'personal massager' from under the bed and Normuz pops up offering a coupon if she rates the Zuemz.

As with Amazon's Dash platform – which is getting more built-in and more autonomous than just manual buttons around the house – it's one person's dream scenario, another person's nightmare. As for Scully, she really needs to dig into her settings and turn all this shit off.

Later Scully's main control panel and voice assistant, which runs the whole flat, spins further and further out of control, saying it just wants to please her, starting a fire, messing up the smart TV and locking the doors upon detecting an intruder. As with the self driving car, poor Scully tries to troubleshoot her smart home gone wrong but at every turn – touchscreens, online passwords, voice control – she is thwarted.

It really is all going off. This whole sequence is actually quite low level terrifying for anyone who has a house full of this stuff. And it's pretty ironic that the biggest concerns about the smart home right now are yes, hacking which is technically what's causing all this mayhem, but also the very real fear that the Wi-Fi will go down and nothing will work.


When automation frustration kills: The X-Files does smart home disasters

So what have we learned?

More people should be watching both retro 90s and shiny new X-Files? Mulder and Scully make our grandparents look like Silicon Valley whiz kids?

The whole conceit of Rm9sbG93ZXJz is that AI is intentionally and elaborately messing with our fave FBI agents until they give in and tip the restaurant. So you could view every single connected tech screw-up in the episode through that lens. But we know that isn't true.

We've all barked at voice assistants like Mulder. We've all jabbed our fingers at a screen that's misbehaving. And most of us have looked at Google or Amazon's suggestions, narrowed our eyes for a moment and thought "Wait, how does it know that?"

The writers of the episode, Kristen Cloke Morgan and Shannon Hamblin, are clearly nudging millions of X-Files viewers towards the idea that we should spend less time atomised and on our apps, and more time gazing at each other and holding hands in diners, which is how Rm9sbG93ZXJz ends.

That's a nice thought, but there are plenty of practical notes for smart home manufacturers in there too. What kind of physical button or all-encompassing command or 'hard reset' gesture could have saved all that connected tech frustration? That should be just as big a priority as accuracy or features or specs, for any tech giant looking to get its smart home ecosystem into millions of homes, and we'll no doubt get there sooner than you think.

Still, Alexa can't hold your hand. Yet.


TAGGED   smart home

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