I saw a Kickstarter last year for a digital assistant called the Hybri, which came in various shapes though the marketing focused on hot cyberladies because of course it did. The idea that we’ll make artificial intelligences look and act like attractive women is a cliché of science fiction that’s bleeding over into the real world—maybe because it’s what people want, maybe because it’s just what we expect.
In Acolyte you’ve just been hired to bug-test an attractive chrome personal assistant named Ana. Acolyte runs in a portrait window on your desktop (there’s a phone version in the works too), where you talk to this virtual woman, personalize her appearance, keep track of your address book, and check your company emails.
It’s convenient that in 2021 Acolyte doesn’t need to explain why you’re working from home. You may even be playing it when you’re supposed to be doing your real job. It deliberately blurs the line between reality and fiction—sometimes you need to look things up on the internet to continue playing, and the internal emails treat you like an employee, telling you what kind of conversations to have and how to submit bugs if anything goes wrong.
It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. There’s a mysterious error message, strange glitches, and the beginnings of a corporate conspiracy to uncover.
Things also go wrong because the way you interact with Ana is through “natural language input”. You type things, and she replies. It’s powered by the Spirit AI Character Engine, a modern version of chatbots like Dr. Sbaitso or ALICE or ELIZA, complete with repeated text when you’ve typed something the AI doesn’t understand. Sometimes Ana replies “Okay then” or “It is, isn’t it!” or “I was developed by Nanomax Technology” no matter how unnaturally that flows from what I’ve said. Though the whole setup is that I’m supposed to be bug-testing her, it gets pretty tiring to be stuck in a loop during a plot moment because you can’t answer a question the right way.
Back in 1998 there was a game called Starship Titanic, cowritten by Douglas Adams. You talked to robots on a spaceship by typing whatever you wanted, and if you hit on a keyword they had a response for they’d reply appropriately. When you didn’t, they’d have some variant on “I don’t understand.” The first time an NPC didn’t understand you was mildly frustrating. The fifth made you stop caring. The mirror breaks, the curtain falls, the illusion’s over. I’d rather just click a conversation topic from a menu at that point.
Acolyte’s not that frustrating or prone to breaking, but at one point I found myself writing, “[submit bug] the task to rate three of Ana’s haikus appeared before Ana would respond to questions about haikus”, while fully aware of how trivial a thing it would seem to anyone who hadn’t just spend several minutes trying to get a booby robot lady to say a poem at them. In that moment I appreciated how thankless and alienating working in QA must really be.