Should you ask Alexa?
For those of you out there in left field eating a sandwich, the home run hit that is Amazon's Alexa is heading your way. Technically, Alexa is an artificially intelligent virtual assistant. Socially, emotionally and in every other way, she is something else altogether. The voice-interactive Echo device in my kitchen plays whatever music I tell her to, makes my to-do lists, sets alarms, streams podcasts, reports both the weather and the traffic. She also tells me if my sports team won. If you own smart devices, she can lock your doors, turn on your lights, set your alarm system and turn on your oven. The trick is, to stay ahead of her.
"Who are you talking to?" my husband asked recently.
"Alexa," I replied.
"Who?" (He, too, is out in left field.)
What it comes down to is this: I decided to engage Alexa in a conversation designed to learn as much as I could about her persona. First, I wanted to know how smart she is, so I asked her to tell me the value of pi. She responded with this: "The approximate value of pi is 3.141592653589793284626. YOWZA! This goes on forever!"
On to her physical description. I asked her how much she weighs.
"I am weightless, like a cloud. Wait a minute, clouds actually weigh a lot. I'm more sass than mass."
This seemed a good time to explore her sense of humor. Here, I let the grandkids take over. Grandkid #1 asked her to tell a cat joke. Alexa's reply: "Why did the cat stop playing basketball? He threw up too many hairballs."
Grandkid #2: "Tell a dog joke!" Alexa: "What kind of a dog do you get in a bakery? Pure bread."
Next, I wondered about her take on the current political situation. Her response was "There are no voting booths in the cloud. Believe me, I've looked!"
I had one final question, designed to test her knowledge of pop culture. What does she know about, say, Chuck Norris?
"If Chuck Norris wants you to know where he is, he'll find you. If he doesn't, you won't know until it's too late."
Okay, so apparently we have a well-rounded robot-person here. However, we baby boomers are suspicious, myself included. We suspect Alexa of eavesdropping, especially when we converse about our decrepit vacuum cleaner within her hearing and that brings us Facebook ads targeted at replacing it.
Alexa's manufacturer promises that only speech that follows the wake-up word ("Alexa") is archived in the cloud. But it turns out that every once in a while a glitch will occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family's private conversation and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contact list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like her name, then misinterpreted the conversation as a series of command words. Seems like a stretch, doesn't it?
What's instructive is that all of these various entities are capable of conversing with each other. We baby boomers find that unsettling and in my opinion, so should everyone else.
Welcome to the future. I see problems ahead. Do I know the answer to those problems? Nope.
Maybe you should ask Alexa.