Be nice to Alexa

My wife and I spent much of this weekend re-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu. One of the disadvantages to binging shows on Hulu is that you are subjected to the same commercials again and again. I have a newfound hatred for Draft Kings and any other fantasy football league websites.

One of the other recurring commercials was for Amazon Echo, the next generation Siri or Cortana or whatever Google calls its talking computer. Echo is a small cylinder with an omni-directional microphone and speaker that can respond to voice commands. It’s the closest thing we have to standing anywhere on the starship Enterprise and asking “Computer?” I definitely want one.

Echo’s avatar is named Alexa and all queries are prompted by saying “Alexa … turn on the lights” or “Alexa … tell me the news.” Having seen this commercial at least twenty times, something began to occur to me about the user’s behavior. He was being rude.

I’m not just referring to commands like “do this”, “do that”. That’s part of Alexa’s job. The part that bugs me is where Alexa is telling him the news and the user hears an interesting tidbit about NASA and new planets. He cuts Alexa off and asks “Alexa … do aliens exist?”. On topic, but still cutting her off in the middle of a sentence.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lwaxana Troi is addressing the ship’s computer (a bit meta since Majel Barrett voices the computer in addition to playing Mrs. Troi). She says please and “thank you dear” to the computer, or herself depending on how you look at it. Her justification is that computers are making us all impersonal and just because it’s a machine doesn’t mean she should be rude (an attitude Dr. Pulaski had to learn gradually with Data).

Alexa is actually better than the Enterprise computer (no offense to Majel). The Next Gen voice has a “computer-y” edge, more akin to Siri’s delivery. Alexa, at least how she’s portrayed in the commercial, is conversational and clear. We get visual feedback of her talking through the light circle. Echo is really an advance in interactive computers. Not an AI yet, but with sophisticated programming.

So why does this matter? Well for starters if we want to bring gender politics in briefly, Alexa is a female voice. She’s being ordered around by a man, and not allowed to finish telling him about NASA’s new discovery which frankly is more interesting than his dumb question. Now some of you careful studiers of the commercial might have noticed that he does at least seem interested in what she’s saying (we hear a “huh” after the initial news tidbit). Again I need to emphasize how many times I saw this damn commercial.

If you were in the next room, and you didn’t know Alexa was a program, maybe you’d think our user was talking to someone on the phone, and that would be perceived as rude. If you were a child, and impressionable about gender roles and how we should treat other people, you might pick up on the exchange. And this is before we even consider the possibility of sentient artificial life, which seems far-fetched, but is still a very real goal of programmers. Computers are wonderful tools, but someday they may be more like equals (if we’re looking at the human race generously).

Now I’m the kind of guy who yells at computers when they don’t work. I don’t slam my monitor screen like Rosa Diaz, but I’m pretty close (given my tower a thwack or two). But maybe Echo should get us to reconsider that behavior, or at least change how its advertised.

And oh yeah, Menards, commercial metal roofing looks terrible. Last roof we’ll ever buy, my fanny. Seriously, Hulu, would a little commercial variety hurt you?

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2 Comments

Filed under Trube On Tech

2 responses to “Be nice to Alexa

  1. While it’s true that a man in this instance is giving a female voice instructions and interrupting her when she answers, according to a lot of research is rather reflective of how things actually happen. Sad, but true. However, it’s the man needing and answer and the woman having it. So, yeah, that’s true to life, too. 😀 😀 😀

  2. This is a really interesting question. All AI-ish software lies somewhere on the spectrum between a non-person tool and a fully sentient equal (or even beyond), and must be treated accordingly. I would argue that Alexa, having no subjective experience of “her” own, is much closer to the non-person side, but you’re right that the way we treat her has ramifications for the way we think about real people, too.

    Could make an interesting short story. Hint, hint. 🙂

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