There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our columnPod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
In the beginning of Stitcher’s new podcast,My Dead Wife, the Robot Car,a widower named Matt signs up with a mysterious tech company to work as a test driver for a new autonomous car. After a confusing introduction — the company rep won’t divulge any details about the company or even tell him his name — he’s set up in one a car, when he receives a rude surprise: the car’s AI is programmed to replicate his recently-deceased wife Joyce, whom he was about to divorce.
“Yeah, you big idiot, what part of this are you not getting?”
The company pulled together a personality profile from Joyce’s video blogging and online presence, and based on their relationship, the company figured that Matt would be a good fit.
Over the course of the series, it’s clear that they’re an incredibly mismatched couple, as they bicker back and forth. Matt is reserved and timid, while the digital version of Joyce is abrasive and continually pushes all of his buttons. In each episode, they get a text from the company that sends them on a particular test — drive to certain areas, figure out traffic, giving the former couple plenty of time trapped together. The series plays out as a frustrating relationship drama, but it’s also a fun satire on the data-driven world of Silicon Valley.
Listen toMy Dead Wife, the Robot Caron Stitcher.
“I’m a big sci-fi guy,” Matt Besser, the show’s creator and lead voice actor toldThe Verge.“and I’m a long-time fan of artificial intelligence taking over, going back to HAL-9000.” He noted that Spike Jonze’s 2013 filmHeris the closest parallel to what his show is. In that film, a lonely man who falls in love with his phone’s AI. “I thought it would be funny to do a version ofHerwhere instead of being in love, you’re forced to be with an unpleasant artificial intelligence.”
Besser noted that he’s fascinated by the way that smart assistances like Alexa, Cortana, and Siri have “infected” our lives, imagining that those personalities will develop over time and change. He predicts that there’ll be instances where celebrities will license their voices and personalities for home operating systems (Mark Zuckerberg has already done this with his own house, with Morgan Freeman’s voice). He was also inspired by the current state of autonomous vehicles, pointing to the tech industry’s broad efforts to deploy and test the vehicles, and some of the high-profile missteps along the way. “The laws are trying to catch up with the technology — something bad happens, then the law changes,” he says, referring to a fatality in March when an Uber car struck a pedestrian.
“I’m fascinated by that whole aspect of robot cars,” Besser says, “as perfect as you can make them, there will always be the human element that you can’t control. I think that’s why my show is a little bit about the husband who has a control-freak type of personality. Having something that’s supposed to operate for you work against you, nothing drive a type-A personality more crazy than that. Any of us dealing with an automated operator will [be driven crazy] if it’s not working for you because you feel like you’re doing everything right.”
Besser explained that he had the idea series while thinking of an opposite from the AI inHer— landing on a nagging ex-wife. While he conceived of the show as a podcast, he thought about including a visual companion, given that much of the action was taking place in a vehicle between two characters. But that turned out to be logistically difficult and expensive. “That’s one of the great things about podcasts — you can pull off bigger ideas. I have some action in this series that I never could have pulled off without a big budget. I can do a high-speed car chase, which I can’t do without a studio shutting down the freeway for me.”
The show has echoes of another show we featured in this series —Sandra, about a human operator working behind the scenes at a major tech company deploying a virtual assistant. In both instances, the users contend with virtual personalities that smash into the real world, and when things don’t go according to plan, strange things happen. “It’s one thing for Alexa to control your house,” Besser says, “that doesn’t feel that dangerous. But being in a car, that’s your life in its hands.”