Can the Amazon Echo’s Alexa avoid controversy?

Can the Amazon Echo’s Alexa avoid controversy?

More and more people are becoming aware of the

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Amazon’s ambient computing device.

It has been regularly featured on the Amazon website, but I recently saw an ad on television:

Amazon Echo TV commercial: Do aliens exist?

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

AFI’S (American Film Institute’s) 100 YEARS…100 MOVIE QUOTES

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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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


5 Responses to “Can the Amazon Echo’s Alexa avoid controversy?”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I saw that Echo commercial and I came away thinking that if I didn’t already know what the Echo was, I probably still wouldn’t know after seeing the commercial. I don’t know if it was bad sound on the commercial or what, but the one thing that stood out from hearing Alexa’s voice was that she said “tuh” instead of “to.” That makes her sound more human. From your quotes, I’m assuming she uses contractions. Hearing her voice also made me wonder, is there a male voice option?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      And thanks for commenting on this blog. 🙂

      There is only one voice option at this point. The voice is similar to what I have on my Kindle Fire HDX…it generally sounds quite natural. There are sometimes the intonation is a bit…formal, perhaps. Alexa does use contractions…but it’s hard for me to separate when Alexa is quoting something (which would have contractions, certainly) and when it would be original to Amazon.

  2. Over $90 in paid apps & games free (limited time) | I Love My Kindle Says:

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  3. Harold Delk Says:

    Interesting post. I’ve had my Echo since early fall last year and have certainly gotten great use of it for entertainment and in doing quick metric conversions while cooking from European cookbooks. We check the weather forecasts from areas we are going to travel into (we travel in a small RV) and ask Alexa to find festivals and local venues for music (much easier now with StubHub) and find local info through Wiki. We have electric and wi-fi in the RV.

    As to parental controls for Alexa I vote a giant no. Parental controls are within the job description of parents who need be actively involved in teaching their own children rather than relying on a device to filter what they consider offensive. If a child hears something a parent considers offensive it is the parent who needs to make it a teaching moment to instill whatever moral value they are trying to instill in their child. I’m offended by quite different things than you are no doubt and each family is uniquely different in their definition of what is “right and proper” … we cannot and should not leave child-rearing to a corporate body’s electronic device. I see far too many parents who use iPhones, iPads, etc. as baby-sitters and then complain when their child sees or hears something they consider offensive … they invariably blame the device maker rather than their own lack of parenting skills.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      Thanks also for commenting at The Measured Circle!

      I’m glad you specifically mentioned that StubHub was good for you! It’s important that the skills succeed early on. I’m curious: would you use StubHub to buy tickets for those events if that was an option?

      As to having a parental control option: I’m pretty much always okay with having options. 🙂 I know they cost something for Amazon to develop and maintain, and that takes resource away from other things, but I do like people to have choices. Parental controls and rating systems are commonly developed, in my opinion, to avoid tighter restrictions. That happened with the movie rating system (the current one from 1968)…the studios were, as I recall, sort of being threatened with corrupting minors charges, so they came up with something to show they were making an effort.

      As a parent, my general feeling was to have our child able to handle exposure to a wide range of material. However, I also realize that we were, perhaps, more able to have more time with our child than is reasonably possible for some people…without that being their planned intentions.

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