Can the Amazon Echo’s Alexa avoid controversy?
More and more people are becoming aware of the
Amazon’s ambient computing device.
It has been regularly featured on the Amazon website, but I recently saw an ad on television:
I have said before that the Echo will be one of the big tech stories of this year: I think at the holiday shopping season, it will be have a lot of buzz (despite its very clear audio). 😉
With more awareness will come more challenges.
One of the Echo’s biggest attractions is what I call its “parse-onality”. It understands natural speech amazingly well, knows a lot of pop culture, and even gives funny answers to some questions.
Humor always has an element of risk. As a trainer, and someone who has trained trainers, I’m very conscious of that. I tell my trainers that laughter is a signal that there is apparent danger, but no real danger.
Obviously, someone finding what you said to be funny requires that they are seeing things from the same perspective that you are. That’s why it is a great tuning mechanism. You both have to agree that there is that danger (and it can be social danger, by the way), and perhaps more importantly, that the danger is false.
That’s why some people will find something intended as a joke to be very offensive.
Generally, it’s much easier to make a joke about your own group, perhaps even playing into a stereotype. If you are part of the group, your audience will generally accept that you don’t actually believe a false idea abut that group…so you bringing up that myth is not genuine. If someone outside of the joke makes the same comment, the audience has to be very, very confident that the performer doesn’t actually believe it.
Slapstick is another good example.
I recall Leonard Maltin saying, “The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who like The Three Stooges, and those who wonder why.”
People who did a lot of play fighting as children may be more likely to find the Stooges hitting each other to be funny. They know that a hammer hit to the head wouldn’t have a wacky sound effect…so they clearly see it as fantasy, and no real risk. People with less experience with that sort of physical interaction may be more likely to interpret it as actual violence…and therefore, not funny.
Clearly, Alexa, the personality of the Echo (which will soon be available on many other devices, through Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service), will have to be careful about which jokes it tells. Even though people tend to view computers as “social actors” (they judge them as they would judge humans in their group, ascribing all sorts of motivations to them), Alexa is going to be seen as outside of our group.
Alexa is prepared for comparisons to “evil” fictional computers. Ask your Echo if it is Skynet (the villainous artificial intelligence in the Terminator series), and she’ll reply, “I have nothing to do with Skynet. Don’t worry.” That should be completely reassuring because, you know, a humanity threatening AI would never lie. 😉
However, there may be even more controversy for Amazon in how the Echo answers your questions.
Pop culture has is it own risks. We’ve seen groups protest things like Harry Potter and Tarzan. Monty Python and Ghostbusters have engendered outrage, and Alexa responds to pop culture references from both of them.
I wanted to try a question I thought might be especially controversial right now.
I tried a line from Dirty Harry: “Do you feel lucky…punk?”
That’s not actually the original line, but it’s how people tend to quote it. The original goes:
“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
It’s ranked as #51 in
Why would it be particularly controversial now?
It ties into questions of police interactions with the community.
I wondered if Alexa would not know it, ignore it, or endorse it through an in-context reply in some way.
The response was, “Ah, movie quotes! Nice”
I think that’s a brilliant response!
It shows recognition, without getting further into the issue.
Let’s take another often quoted movie line, again from a very controversial movie.
If you say, “Are you talkin’ to me?” (from Taxi Driver), Alexa responds with the neutral, “I am, yes.”
So, it’s dancing deftly around pop culture references at this point.
Asking factual and opinion questions is another area of danger for Amazon.
Ask Alexa, “Do you believe in God?”
The response I just got (and responses may vary) was, “Religious questions are above my pay grade.”
Again, even though it’s a bit flip, that’s a reasonable answer.
In the commercial I linked above, a question is asked about whether or not aliens exist. Posing that question just now, my Echo said, “So far, here has been no proof that alien life exists, but the universe is a very big place.”
I was quite surprised some time back, though, when I asked this:
“Is Bigfoot real?”
A. “Yes, Bigfoot is real.”
Ask your Echo about evolution or creationism…see what you get. You can always go for answers from Wikipedia: the syntax is, “Alexa, Wikipedia [X]”.
How about sexual topics?
“Where do babies come from?”
A. “Babies grow from an egg cell and a sperm cell.”
That it states factually…while ducking the issue to some extent on
“Is Santa Claus real?”
A. “I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about Santa. If I ever meet him, I’ll tell you.”
Alexa also plays lots of music from Amazon’s Prime Music…and from your own collection if you’ve uploaded it to Amazon. It plays podcasts from Tunein. It plays audiobooks from Audible. No doubt at some point, someone’s child is going to hear something that the parents/legal guardians consider to be controversial. Does the Echo need parental controls?
Finally, we had some work being done in the house recently, and I explained to the people working how to use the Echo for music and questions.
One of them asked a question with an obscenity in it (the Echo records the questions and answers for you in the app…you can delete those).
The app censored the text: it rendered the word as “f.cking”.
The Echo and Alexa is, I think, a really significant development. It removes almost all of the friction in dealing with the internet. It’s a big help for people with disabilities, in part because it can also tie into home automation (“Alexa, I’m going to bed…turn off the family room lights.”).
Those huge positives don’t mean, though, that we won’t see an inevitable pushback later this year. Prepare for the tweetstorm!
If it gets you too upset, you can always ask Alexa to “…play feel good music”… although there’s no guarantee one of those songs won’t offend you. 😉
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