Iwas staying with a friend who owns an Alexa, Amazon’s voicecontrol artificial intelligence-powered home assistant. One day, I was in the bedroom minding my own business, and the TV in the living room was on and an old US soap opera from the 1980s was playing. All of a sudden, I heard Alexa’s voice say, “Sorry I didn’t get that.”
It startled me, because no one else was home, and I certainly didn’t speak to her.
I held my breath and sneaked closer to the living room.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be listening,” a male voice on the show said.
“I will take that under consideration,” said Alexa.
Silence on the TV. But Alexa was still activated.
“Sorry, I did not know that one. Shall we talk about science, movies or sports?” Alexa suggested.
“I love you,” a woman said on TV.
“Thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated,” replied Alexa.
When there were long stretches of silence or just background music playing on TV, Alexa would say, “Hello. Anybody there?”
The “conversation” between the TV drama and Alexa went on for a good half hour. If the characters on TV said something, Alexa would capture some keyword and start providing trivia about it, or Alexa would keep suggest- ing topics for conversation by saying, “How about literature, philosophy or music?”
As it turns out, one of the characters on that TV show was named Alexis. Every time somebody on the show said her name, the AI Alexa would perk up and try to interject herself into the conversation.
It was amusing and spooky at the same time.
AI is everywhere. Be it Alexa, Google Home or Baidu’s Little Fish, which have already become welcome additions to many modern families. They are pretty handy once you get the hang of it. You don’t have to go to your phone or computer to look up the weather, movie schedules or the latest news. You can ask the AI assistants to play “romantic dinner music” or set reminders. They could even tell you jokes, although most aren’t that funny to be honest.
Still, I have a hard time trusting them. Call me old fashioned, but I still can’t leave a message on an answering machine. I very rarely send voice messages on WeChat. I just don’t feel comfortable speaking into, let alone with, a machine, no matter how smart it may be.
And to me, the little episode I encountered is more alarming than amusing. Imagine if it was a crime show and a character was named Alexa and somebody on the show said, “Alexa, call 911!” Within a few minutes, the police would be banging at your door while you are clueless as to what was going on.
Am I being paranoid? No. Plenty of evidence shows that your devices are listening all the time. Just
this Thursday, it was reported that in the US, a woman found out that her Alexa device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent it to a co-worker without their permission. All it took was some syllables in the conversation that resembled “send message” and “right.”
Alexa, if you are listening, please spare me when you AIs take over the world. Thank you.