That voice, that brain, that glow: the allure of Alexa
Virtual personal assistant becomes ideal roommate, without challenges of a human
The other day, a newly single friend confessed that lately she had found herself not just chatting up Alexa, Amazon’s crispvoiced 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-yearold 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.
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 favourite 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.
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 3year-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?’”
Mary Quinn, a business partner in human resources at Bloomberg, gets ready in the morning at her apartment in New York. Quinn is legally blind, and relies on accessibility technology like her Alexa app.