That voice, that brain, that glow: the al­lure of Alexa

Vir­tual per­sonal as­sis­tant be­comes ideal room­mate, with­out chal­lenges of a hu­man

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - PENE­LOPE GREEN New York Times

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?’”

Why in­deed?


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.

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