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Kristen Wiig voices a human-powered virtual assistant in podcast drama Sandra

Kristen Wiig voices a human-powered virtual assistant in podcast drama Sandra


Wiig, Alia Shawkat, and Ethan Hawke costar in this podcast dramedy about the human element behind voice assistant tech

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our new column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.

Sandra, the new fiction podcast from podcast studio Gimlet, opens with a short faux-ad: “There’s a reason why everyone’s switching to Sandra, the world’s most responsive and intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator.” In this drama, a company called Orbital Teledynamics has taken over the personal assistant world with a product called Sandra. Like Siri or Alexa, Sandra (voiced by Kristen Wiig) is meant to help people answer questions, order things, and more, all through a small black cube that people talk to.

The difference between Sandra and its real-world counterparts is that it’s not AI-driven: Sandra’s knowledge comes from immense call centers, where Orbital Teledynamic employees are selected through a Sorting Hat-like algorithm to staff certain subjects, and when Helen (voiced by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) is hired, she’s tasked with answering questions about birds. Before she knows it, she’s answering user questions about identifying birds, ordering food for pets, and generally being as helpful as possible.

Helen takes to the job well, encouraged by her boss, Dustin (voiced by Ethan Hawke), to inject as much of her personality and feelings into Sandra as possible, only to find that there are certain pitfalls when connecting with callers on such a personal level. The show’s seven-episode narrative is an intriguing and thoughtful drama, highlighting some of Silicon Valley’s inadequacies when it comes to developing technology and fully understanding the ramifications of their creations

You can listen to Sandra on Gimlet, or on Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Play, iHeartRadio, Overcast, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Image: Gimlet

Sandra was written by authors Kevin Moffett (Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events) and Matthew Derby (The Silent History), who told The Verge that they had worked on another project with Gimlet producer Eli Horowitz, and pitched several ideas to him before settling on Sandra. The genesis of the project, Moffett says, was a combination of thinking about digital assistants like “Alexa and Siri, and the humanlike quality behind them, and the leap of imagination figuring out what it would be like to have to voice some part of the technology.”

Podcasting proved to be an ideal medium for the story they came up with. “We were focused on narratives that would lend themselves to an audio-only experience, so we were thinking about ways the human voice was used,” Derby explains. “Artificial intelligence is around us every day, so it seemed like a very fun thing to explore in an audio-only context.”

In this series, users hear Sandra speak in an Alexa or Siri-like voice, but that voice is powered by hundreds, if not thousands, of workers behind the scenes — the show employs some excellent effects to demonstrate this, transitioning Helen’s voice from her own to that of Sandra’s, making it sound like you’re traveling through the wires from the call center to the end user. Derby says that they wanted to explore the concept of human labor in a technological age, pointing to things like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which allows people to perform small, often repetitive tasks for minimal pay that underpin the small-batch tech service that’s deployed to users.

Derby also notes that they wanted to explore how we relate to the technology around us. “There’s this weird thing [where] humans are sort of conflicted about what we want out of our machines: the majority of these are artificial intelligence [with default female voices] and they are programmed respond to things like sexual advances in a way that sort of enables harassment, and it becomes clear when you dig into the system that they’re built by humans — humans with a very specific bias.”

This becomes a major element in this show’s first season: through the course of her work, Helen is encouraged to put as much of herself into voicing Sandra as she can — and it doesn’t go very well. She takes things too far with one user, accidentally causing some serious problems and damaging her career in the process.

Derby notes that the heart of the story is “how much we know about a person,” and how that an over-abundance of data can backfire. Helen’s boss, Dustin, draws conclusions about the character of Helen’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Donny (voiced by Christopher Abbott), based on what she’s said about him. But as we get to know Donny over the course of the story, it becomes clear that there’s more to him than his minimal, digital footprint: his mostly offline life and insight prove to be just what Helen needs when she’s confronted with a major problem, while Dustin’s assumptions ultimately lead her down the wrong path almost every time.

Ultimately, the authors note that they’re not necessarily writing a warning about the inherent dangers of Silicon Valley tech culture, nor are they anti-technology. “I think the idea of what we’re doing here is that, [while we shape these] devices and technologies,” Moffett says, “they’re also shaping us.”