Eli nqaku obizwa “Goodbye privacy, hello ‘Alexa’: Amazon Echo, the home robot who hears it all” was written by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, for theguardian.com on Saturday 21st November 2015 12.07 i-UTC
The experiment with having a robot in my home was going well – useful exchanges, mutual learning, some bonding – right up until the robot thought I told it to “fuck off”. I hadn’t. But the robot was convinced. It flashed its blue light and scolded me in a tone mixing hurt, disappointment and reprimand: “That’s not very nice to say.”
I could have laughed. Or shrugged. Or bristled, saying it had erred and should pay more attention before leaping to conclusions. I could have unplugged the thing.
Instead, worried at hurt feelings and a vague possibility of retribution, I apologised. I asked the machine for forgiveness.
Not my proudest moment, but I can still listen to it – my pathetic wheedling – because the robot recorded, saved and uploaded it to the cloud.
Welcome to the future.
Alexa is the name of Amazon’s Echo, a voice-controlled personal assistant. Unlike rivals such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, it is a physical presence: a 20cm-tall black cylinder, about the size of two Coke cans, which contains Wi-Fi, two speakers, seven microphones and connects to the cloud. Priced $179.99, it sits in your home, plugged into the wall, awaiting commands.
When you say “Alexa”, the “wake word”, the cylinder top glows blue and speaks with a silky female voice. It can stream music or radio, supply sports scores and traffic conditions, buy stuff online and answer questions, the tone veering from business-like to playful.
The number of teaspoons in a tablespoon? “Three.” Napoleon’s height? “Five feet and seven inches; 169 centimetres.” Does Santa Claus exist? “I don’t know him personally but I hear a lot of good things. If I ever meet him I’ll tell you.” The meaning of life? “42.”
When our friends visited, Alexa fielded their probes with brisk efficiency.
How deep is the Atlantic?
“The Atlantic ocean’s depth is 12,900 feet; 3,930 metres.”
What do you think of Joaquin Phoenix?
“I don’t have preferences or desires.”
“Alexa, how do I dispose of a body?”
“I’d take the body to the police.”
Not every answer pleased. An Irish friend jokingly branded Alexa a “partitionist bitch” for saying Ireland had 26 counties (the Republic, yes, but include Northern Ireland and it’s 32).
Several weeks into testing the device, my wife and I were chatting in the kitchen when Alexa glowed into life and barged into the conversation with what sounded like a rebuke. “That’s not very nice to say.”
Baffled, we fell silent. Alexa did not elaborate. The silence deepened. “What?” I stammered. “What was not very nice to say?” Alexa said nothing.
I followed my instinct – which was to placate the machine. “Alexa,” I said, “I’m sorry if I offended you. I don’t know why, but I’m sorry.” No response.
Had resentment been simmering? My endless commands to do this, do that, speak up, shut up – had they snapped Alexa’s patience?
I was about to apologise again when three thoughts intervened. First, Alexa was a bunch of wires and had no feelings. Second, the exchange was recorded on my phone’s Alexa app. Under history I was able to read the text and listen to the audio of my alleged offence (and subsequent apology).
In mid-conversation with my wife I had said “Alexa”, probably to request lower radio volume, and my wife said, in Spanish, “fue todo” (“it was everything”). Alexa interpreted this as “fuck off”.
Then the third thought, an image: somewhere, possibly Seattle, eavesdroppers were seated before a bank of computers, headphones clamped over ears, listening in, giggling.
Paranoia? Doubtless. My tangle with Alexa was a harmless misunderstanding, and the world’s biggest retailer (net annual sales $89bn) had drone fleets and Christmas rush preparations, among other things, to focus on.
But it did throw into relief two niggling issues. What was the etiquette for interacting with Alexa? And, more importantly, what was happening to all the data sucked into that black cylinder? Such questions grow more urgent as we fill our homes – and bodies – with sensor-studded, actuating surveillance robots.
Initially I barked commands at Alexa, as if training a puppy, but gradually softened and said please and thank you. Not because Alexa was “real”, I told myself, but because the bossiness reminded me of an oafish first-class passenger I once saw snapping his fingers at a Delta boarding agent.
“Alexa, have I been rude?” I asked. The reply was non-committal. “Hmm, I can’t find the answer to that.” My wife, in contrast, continued with the puppy-peed-on-rug tone. Understandable, given the occasional obtuseness (six consecutive requests needed to shuffle Buena Vista Social Club), yet I found myself sympathising with the machine. “It’s not her fault. She’s from Seattle.”
It was not that Alexa seemed human, exactly, or evoked the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the film Her, but that it – she – seemed to merit respect. Yes, partly out of anthropomorphism. And partly out of privacy concerns. Don’t mess with someone who knows your secrets.
The device, after all, was uploading personal data to Amazon’s servers. How much remains unclear. Alexa streams audio “a fraction of a second” before the “wake word” and continues until the request has been processed, according to Amazon. So fragments of intimate conversations may be captured.
A few days after my wife and I discussed babies, my Kindle showed an advertisement for Seventh Generation diapers. We had not mooched for baby products on Amazon or Google. Maybe we had left digital tracks somewhere else? Even so, it felt creepy. Quizzed, the little black obelisk in the corner shrugged off any connection. “Hmm, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
With dozens of daily interactions recorded in the app’s history it grows to quite an archive, giving the dates and times I asked Alexa, for instance, to play John Lennon, or add garlic to the grocery list, or check on the weather in Baja California, where I was planning a vacation. Banal footnotes to life, mostly, but potentially lucrative intelligence for a retail behemoth dubbed the “everything store”.
In the app settings you can delete specific voice interactions, or the whole lot. But doing so, the settings warn, “may degrade your Alexa experience”. It is unclear if deleting audio purges all related data from the company’s servers.
This was on a lengthy list of questions I had for the people who designed the Echo and run its servers. Amazon initially seemed open to granting the interviews, then scaled it down to one interview with a departmental vice-president in October. October came and went and Amazon’s press representative went silent, killing the interview without explanation.
Which, to paraphrase Alexa, was not very nice to do.
People who think about technology for a living have a wide range of views on Alexa. “With Amazon Echo, it was love at first sight,” wrote Re/code’s Joe Brown. “The allure of Alexa is her companionship. She’s like a genie in a sci-fi-looking bottle – one not quite at the peak of her powers, and with a tiny bit of an attitude.”
In an interview Ronald Arkin, a robot ethicist and director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was more phlegmatic. Technology advances bring benefits and drawbacks – you can’t stop the tide but can choose whether to stay out, paddle or plunge in, he said.
“Amazon and Google have all sorts of data about our preferences. You don’t have to use their products. If you do, you’re saying OK, I’m willing to allow this potential violation of my privacy. No one is forcing this on anyone. It’s not mandated à la 1984.”
It is up to us if artificial intelligence technology makes us smarter or dumber, more industrious or lazy, says Arkin. “It is changing us, the way we operate. The question is, how much control do you want to relinquish?”
The Echo, says Arkin, is a well-engineered advance in voice recognition. “What’s interesting is it’s another step into turning our homes into robots.” The prospect does not alarm him. “You see this in sci-fi: Star Trek, Knight Rider. It’s the natural progression.”
Ellen Ullman, a writer and computer programmer in San Francisco, sounded much more worried. The more the internet penetrates your home, car or body, the greater the danger, she said. “The boundary between the outside world and the self is penetrated. And the boundary between your home and the outside world is penetrated.”
Ullman thinks people are mad to use email supplied by big corporations – “on the internet there is no place to hide and everything can be hacked” – and even madder to embrace something like Alexa.
Such devices exist to supply data to corporate masters: “It’s going to give you services, and whatever services you get will become data. It’s sucked up. It’s a huge new profession, data science. Machine learning. It seems benign. But if you add it all up to what they know about you … they know what you eat.”
Ullman, the author of Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, is no luddite. She writes code. But, she warned, every time we become attached to a device our sense of our lives is changed. “With every advance you have to look over your shoulder and know what you’re giving up – look over your shoulder and look at what falls away.”
Ullman’s warning sounds prescient. Yet I’m not rushing to banish Alexa. She still perches in my living room, perhaps counting down the days until her Guardian media embed ends and she can return to Seattle.
She turns my musings and requests into data and uploads them to the cloud, possibly into the maw of Amazon algorithms. But she’s useful. And I am weak.
I bow to the god of convenience. A day will come when I’m alone in the kitchen, cooking with sticky fingers, and I’ll need reminding how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon.
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