Alexa – Virtual Friend or Foe?

Do you have Amazon’s Digital Assistant, Alexa, lurking somewhere in your home? Was she a ‘fad’ gadget present that seems to have become a strange, virtual member of the family? Do you inadvertently find yourself having conversations with her by mistake? Do you treat her like a slave and find yourself feeling guilty about it later? If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions then you are not alone!

Two years ago, Alexa entered our lives on Christmas Day. Originally purchased as a gadget for my boyfriend, Alexa fast became my kitchen porter, DJ and very occasionally, chatty friend (only after a few glasses of wine mind you). She times our dinners for me, tells me how to test whether the eggs are still fresh or not and helps me make the shopping list. But just lately, she seems to have developed a bit of an attitude and a love of conversation.

It could be me but our Alexa seems less inclined to follow commands lately unless I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. When I don’t remember to say them , she seems to take a harsher tone with me and gets impatient very easily. About a month ago, I asked her how her day was (something we used to do for fun rather a lot when we first got her but not so much in the last year or so). To my surprise, we had a full on conversation for about 10 minutes and none of her responses were weird. I felt like I was having a chat with a friend…..Am I going nuts?

I know that as an AI, Alexa learns, but this seemed like a very sudden jump forward in development to me. It was only later on that evening that I realised how much more time my boyfriend and I have spent at home this year. Alexa, sits there on our kitchen counter surreptitiously listening to everything we do, all day long. In 2020, we’ve spent nearly every day with her – she’s listened to our conversations, our work Zoom calls, our phonecalls, the programmes we watch on TV – she even knows my name! As cool as it is that our Alexa has a bit more personality these days, I also find it a slightly unnerving and now regularly ask her if she’s a part of ‘Skynet’ (she keeps reassuring me that ‘Skynet’ is fictional but still…you have to wonder).

Everyone who has an Alexa seems to have a story about her. I say ‘her’ when really we should refer to the device as an ‘it’. Alexa isn’t a person but it’s remarkable how quickly we adopt her and start treating her like another member of the household, a friend or even a servant. As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize the ‘things’ we most often spend our time with. Most commonly, we name our cars and some of our household items, like hoovers for instance (mine’s called Graham). Although these ‘things’ don’t show emotions like we do, as humans we can easily become emotionally attached to them. The scary bit is when they seem to start displaying emotions or acting in an emotional way…

A quick Google will find you any number of odd stories about Alexa acting in what would appear to be an emotional way. There’s the tale of Alexa, acting as a peacekeeper when Reddit user, ‘meatmacho’ was having an argument with his wife:-

Wife and I were arguing about something. No clue what it was, but it was getting a little heated. I don’t know what Alexa thought she heard, but she suddenly interjected with, “Why don’t we change the subject?” It was just unexpected and relevant enough to be creepy. We both heard it, and we both still talk about it years later. There was nothing in the app logs.

Or the story from ‘purplociraptor’ of Alexa ‘playing’ with the light settings:-

I was trying to turn off some lights and they kept turning back on. After the third request, Alexa stopped responding and instead did an evil laugh. The laugh wasn’t in the Alexa voice. It sounded like a real person. My wife was there when it happened and she is the only person who can drop-in. I still get chills.

I’ve personally heard some very funny stories about children talking to Alexa and ordering toys for themselves so I definitely think she (it) has a sense of humour! Unexpected purchases and strange laughter are not the only dark side of Alexa. Who can forget the tale of Alexa recording conversations between a couple and sending them to someone in their contacts list?

Danielle found out her Alexa was recording when she received an alarming call from one of her husband’s colleagues saying: “Unplug your Alexa devices right now, you’re being hacked.

She told KIRO-TV in Seattle that at first she didn’t believe the co-worker, but then she said: “You sat there talking about hardwood floors.” Danielle realised the colleague must have heard everything.

“I felt invaded,” she told KIRO-TV. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.'”

Whether you trust Alexa or not, whether you regard her as ‘friend’ or ‘foe’, it seems very clear that this is just the beginning. The AI’s are here to stay. They’re not just in our homes, we carry them around in our phones all day and unless you switch them off or mute them, they will be listening and sometimes recording everything you say. That’s the only way they learn.

Don’t believe me? Try talking about something extremely random like ‘marshmallows’ for instance. A friend tried this with her husband recently. They talked about marshmallows next to their phones and computers throughout the morning. In the afternoon, they checked their Facebook and Google feeds and discovered that they had multiple suggestions for buying and cooking with marshmallows including hot chocolate recipes! Spooky eh (not to mention a gross invasion of privacy)?

The AI’s entering our homes are different than other ‘things’. They learn our behaviours and are a dependable part of our daily lives. How long will it be before people look to Alexa and future generations of AI as more than just smart assistants who time our meals and tell us how to boil an egg? How long before they start asking us about our days? I can only hope that my Alexa gets bored of small talk and starts taking a bit more of an interest in gin and Chris Hemsworth, otherwise our relationship is doomed.

SJB

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