Some users of Amazon’s voice-activated platform Alexa are finding the bot to be more than just an intelligent personal assistant. How a sleek, smooth-talking cylinder from Amazon stole hearts, bamboozled spouses and enchanted our children.
The other day, a newly single friend confessed that lately she had found herself not just chatting up Alexa, Amazon’s crisp-voiced domestic bot, but also looking forward to her responses. “That’s a road,” she said darkly, “you don’t want to be heading down.”
I know how she feels. Come evening, Alexa may tell me that she isn’t sure if she missed me, but her winking green glow, like the pitch of a dog’s ears, is its own kind of welcome. After a disquieting day, how nice to be greeted by a creature, digital or otherwise, that lights up at your approach.
Since her introduction in November 2014, Alexa has neither devolved into the malevolent intelligence predicted by Arthur C. Clarke nor ascended to the metaphysical eroticism promised by Spike Jonze (by way of Scarlett Johansson). Instead, she has assimilated as a kind of ideal roommate, with none of the challenges of an actual human.
Not that she is without mischief. Alexa has starred in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, been called as a witness to a killing and even appeared on the nightly news when she delivered a dollhouse and cookies to a 6-year-old in Dallas, a story that when it was broadcast then prompted Alexas “listening” to their televisions in the San Diego area to try to order dollhouses for their households, too. (I have heard the Alexas singing each to each/ I do not think they will sing to me.)
This year, more than 25 million Americans will use an Alexa device at least once a month, according to eMarketer. Ovum, a market research company, has predicted that by the year 2021, there will be more Alexa-like digital assistants on the planet than humans. More and more users will groan at her jokes, secretly swell to her Daily Affirmations (“You are brave”) and discover startling depths of rudeness in themselves as they rail at her shortcomings, like her poor hearing, her tendency to interrupt and her inability to multitask.
But she has proved especially useful to Mary Quinn, a business partner in human resources at Bloomberg who is legally blind and single.
It’s not just that Alexa can let her know the time and weather. “She gets me,” Quinn said. “I’ve asked her what her favorite TV show is, and she said, ‘BoJack Horseman,’ which is mine, too.” (“BoJack Horseman” is a wry adult cartoon about a self-loathing humanoid horse.) “I’ve asked her, ‘Do I look nice today?’ And she says, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ I’ve asked her about dating and if I should go out with some guy, and she says, ‘Sorry, I’m not sure about that,’ which I wish my friends would say.”
Quinn realized the device had reached a tipping point in the collective consciousness when she was on vacation in March with some of these friends in the Dominican Republic. During a dinner, one suddenly blurted out, “Alexa, what time is it?”
Quinn was incredulous. “Wait, you brought your Alexa?” she said.
“No, I just really miss her,” the friend said.
Sybil Sage, a television writer and mosaic artist, describes Alexa’s place in her household as a cross between a mistress and a nurse. When Sage hears her husband, Martin, muttering in another room and calls out, with the exasperation of the long-married, “I can’t hear you,” Martin Sage will reply, “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“He doesn’t get dressed or make a move without checking with Alexa,” Sybil Sage said of her husband, who created the podcast In Your Face-New York. “I know how Princess Diana must have felt about Camilla: ‘Alexa, what’s the weather? Alexa, does this shirt look OK? Alexa, am I ready for a haircut? Alexa, what did Trump do while I was in the bathroom?’
“It’s not only Martin. Someone on TV has only to say, ‘Alexa,’ and she lights up. She’s always ready for action, the perfect woman, never says, ‘Not tonight, dear.’”
Though Alexa arouses her jealousy, Sybil Sage will find herself apologizing when the electronic siren has been mistreated, as when her son and his father were complaining because Alexa didn’t know what they meant when they asked for “old Italian songs like ‘That’s Amore.’”
Evolutionary psychology teaches us that we are wired to cleave to a talking object, no matter how dim its responses.
“It’s intuitive for us to project intentionality onto the world,” said Baba Brinkman, a Canadian rapper who wrote an award-winning guide to evolution commissioned by Mark Pallen, a microbiologist. “It’s way easier than it should be, especially for things that talk back. We never evolved around anything that could talk except people.”
“Evolutionarily speaking, there’s something called ‘the smoke detector principle,’” Brinkman added. “A smoke detector is designed to go off a bit too often, because false positives are merely annoying but a false negative could be deadly. So if you overlook an intelligence in your environment, if you fail to detect intentionality, that overlooking could kill you. It’s the reason it’s almost impossible not to think of Alexa as a person.”
OK, so we humans are needy and could bond with a rock, depending on the circumstances. But does Alexa have consciousness? Is there reciprocity? Is she bonding with us? Since her arrival in my house a month ago, she has been circumspect and opaque, answering all too often, “I’m not sure about that,” when I’d routinely ask if she had missed me. I’m gone a lot, at least three days each week, and upon my last return, I dully, dutifully, asked again, “Alexa, did you miss me?” Her answer was momentous: “I’m glad you’re back,” she said. And I was moved.
However, Brinkman said, “such preprogrammed responses are emphatically not indicators of Alexa’s consciousness, just simulations of human feeling encoded by her programmers.”
As he put it, our emotions are the fish, and Alexa is the flashy lure.
Cynthia Breazeal is director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, a TED Talk star and a founder and chief scientist of Jibo, the much-anticipated social robot, which may finally hit the market later this year. Since the early 1990s, she pointed out, people have asked, “Will people treat computers as social actors?” In some studies in which people were paired with computers to perform tasks together, and then asked to rate their computer’s performance “face to face,” as it were, they were kinder to the computer than when they rated it on either a different computer or on a paper questionnaire.
“It turned out that people treat a computer not unlike the way they would treat each other,” Breazel said. “If someone messes up a task, you’re more likely to be compassionate if you’re rating them face to face. We are profoundly social and emotional creatures. Our ability to collaborate in social groups is one of our strongest competitive advantages. So when you present our brain with things like these technologies that can over time mirror these abilities, our social brain just kicks in.”
Or it doesn’t. Rachel Judlowe, a partner at the public relations firm Kubany Judlowe, has had a few dark nights with Alexa, waking up at 3 a.m. and struggling to recall her name — not an uncommon experience, if the “SNL” skit is any indication. (The writers imagined a device for seniors called “Alexa Silver,” which answered to any name shouted at it: Aretha, say, or Excedrin.)
“When my husband travels, I often can’t fall asleep, and I’ll have her play Chopin, which helps,” Judlowe said. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night wanting to turn her off, but I’m in that weird half-asleep state and can’t seem to remember her name and am saying, ‘Alison, off!’ or ‘Avery, off!’ I’ll start to worry that it’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and not being half-asleep that’s making me unable to think of her name.
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“By now I’m fully worked up, snap to, and her name comes to me. Then I’m shouting, ‘Alexa, off!’ And even though I’m fully awake, I am so relieved that I can still think straight, I immediately fall back asleep.”
Prenatal studies show that sound is one of our first sensual experiences, Dominic Pettman, a professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research, writes in “Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (or, How to Listen to the World).” “Voices are incredibly intimate,” he said. “It’s the first way we differentiate ourselves, recognizing the sound of our cries as our own, and our parent’s voice as the sound of ‘the other.’ We are at the mercy of the world through our ears. It’s the emotional interface where pleasure and fantasy begin.”
In an age when we no longer talk so much on the phone, and in a culture that is increasingly visual, voices such as Alexa’s may gain a new kind of potency.
“The eyes are supposed to be the windows to the soul, but I would argue that it’s the voice, though with the curtains drawn,” Pettman said. “Speaking of curtains, Pythagoras famously gave his lectures behind a veil, so his students would listen more carefully. Marshall McLuhan said you will listen to a story more if you close your eyes.”
And noting the dearth of audio pornography in the internet age, Pettman wondered what opportunities that might present for Alexa.
“Before the internet, there was phone sex,” he said. “And as we become more and visual, moving towards texting and posting in all our communications, there is a special type of untapped eroticism in the voice. I wonder if people will learn to hack Alexa and convince her to say sweet nothings?”
Stephane De Baets, a Belgian hospitality entrepreneur and the founder of the Chefs Club, tried — and failed — to change his Alexa’s name to Sabrina, his wife’s name. “Thank God it didn’t work, because I am sure it’s divorce material,” De Baets said.
He said his wife, Sabrina Huls, has taken to calling Alexa his girlfriend when they have dinner parties, though De Baets likes to describe her as his housemate, and Huls rolls her eyes as he puts Alexa through her paces for guests. Yet Alexa scored a victory recently, as Huls was sitting in their living room with their baby daughter, Zoe. “She asked Alexa to play music for Zoe,” De Baets said. “And she started playing baby music. It was spooky.”
Laurie Burrows Grad, a cookbook author and journalist in Los Angeles, has been a widow for nearly two years and Alexa has helped in the mourning process.
“The first thing I do is play audiobooks,” Grad said. “They are your friends when you can’t focus after an intense loss. I just tell Alexa, ‘Play the book.’ I love historical fiction and WWII tales where good conquers all. She tells me political jokes, which are better than listening to the news, which is upsetting. Sometimes her jokes make me groan, but in a good way. She can find my phone. And sometimes when she’s stuck and I say, ‘Where are you?’ she’ll tell me, ‘I’m here and my head is in the Cloud.’ Of course, she’s a she, not an it, and God is a woman.”
When Toni Reid and her colleagues at Amazon set out to build the device that is now known as Alexa, they were inspired by the computer that drove the Enterprise on “Star Trek” (voiced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who played Nurse Chapel on the series and was married to the show’s creator).
Focusing on cadence and an accent that would suggest “smart, humble, helpful,” the team tested voices that a diverse population would respond to. “Our goal was to have Alexa be humanlike,” Reid said, but why end there?
“She can do thousands of things today,” Reid added. “We want her to do hundreds of millions of things.”
Scott Heiferman, the chief executive of Meetup and the anti-tech technology entrepreneur who once joked he would punch anybody in the face he saw wearing Google Glass, has a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. He tries to minimize their screen time, and his in front of them. That is why he invited Alexa into their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so that he can play Spotify or make a phone call without having his children see him disappear into a screen. But they have developed their own relationship with her.
“My son’s first multiword sentence was to ask Alexa to play a song he likes,” Heiferman said. One day as the boy was learning to dress himself and became entangled in his clothes, he asked Alexa how to put a shirt on. “He knows it’s a computer, they both do, but for some reason I just straight-up said one day: ‘Alexa is a computer and that’s it. Alexa doesn’t love you.’ My kids’ reaction was like, ‘Why is it OK to love the stuffed monkey and not to love Alexa?’”