Chatty bots

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - TWOCENTS - By Sky Xu

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.

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