Benny Benchpress will be your coach

I ENTERED the fitness center and was rendered speechless by one little detail: The exercise machines talked. My first impulse was to check the place for ventriloquists, but a man explained that, thanks to computerization, the functions of trainer and equipment have been merged, resulting in this loquacious hardware. He said that, with their 1,000-word vocabularies (considerably more than I had at that moment), the machines could competently guide me through an exercise session.

I recalled that, two months before this, my sister-in-law had spoken of her new camera that talks (presumably to give operating instructions, not just to be friendly). She had taken it to her place of work and it had malfunctioned, speaking out of turn to the extent that a co-worker said, ``Could you persuade your camera to pipe down?''

After hearing her story, I had concluded that, despite the wonderment of it all, I was not keen on having speech emanate from all sorts of unlikely sources - just an occasional parrot.

But now, as I prepared to do a bench-press routine, I was under the guidance of a synthesized voice. It made me uneasy. I looked around to see how others related to their exercise machines. They seemed to form comfortable partnerships, some even saying a word or two back to the apparatus in use.

I, however, was closemouthed. If I had laid a little groundwork in the past by speaking to an occasional houseplant or pet newt, I reasoned, I could be like these folks, unashamed to speak to a machine. (True, I had spoken to my truck once, but only in one-word exhortations that rose above the stuttering ignition. ``Start!'' I had said. ``Start! Start!'' When the truck refused, we were no longer on speaking terms.)

THE fitness apparatus had been assigned names, presumably to enhance the feeling that they were friendly helpers, and if I remember correctly, ``Benny Benchpress'' was the tag on this first mechanical acquaintance. A toy company, I thought, supports the fantasy that a doll is a playmate by making it say something like, ``I like your hair,'' and naming it ``Talky Tina.'' This did not seem much different in principle, just more sophisticated.

Perhaps sophistication was not so important to me, for when my muscles began straining and Benny said, ``Keep going,'' I would gladly have traded it in for Tina's ``I like your hair.''

But the synthesized voice efficiently led me through my weight-lifting routine. When the desired goal was reached, the machine spoke approvingly and a happy face appeared on its visual screen, all of which again made me feel uneasy. I did not like the idea of receiving praise from something inanimate.

I remained rather aloof while sampling the rest of the fitness appliances. (Sorry to refer to them so anonymously, but I've never been very good at remembering ``people's'' names.) Perhaps I was busy wrestling with the philosophical implications of human attributes being mixed with mechanical ones. Or perhaps I just resented the fact that some of the machines spoke better than I did.

Anyway, the next time I visit the fitness center, I don't think I will be able to fight it. I will probably inquire if Benny's in. I will probably ask Benny if he has ever met my sister-in-law's camera.

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