Alexa

alexa-amazon

She has a name: Alexa.
The always-on Amazon Echo is developing a personality among early adopters who say they aren’t worried about privacy, and welcome a listening ear.

When Steven Arkonovich brought home his Amazon Echo, he knew the little machine’s basic functions: he could ask it to tell him the weather, add something to his shopping cart, or play NPR.

The Echo was always on, waiting, listening for his invocation. Say “Alexa” and it lit up blue, ready to answer questions – “Where is the nearest Chinese restaurant?” – or act on orders – ‘Call me an Uber’ – responding in a calm, confident female voice.

But after a few days having it in his house, something strange happened between Arkonovich and the squat, black device: Alexa came alive.

“Even when I’ve tried to call her ‘it’, it feels wrong. She has a name. She’s Alexa,” he said. “And when she does something wrong, it’s not like a broken vending machine. My frustration with her is more like with a human who’s learning.”

Amazon’s Echo has been a sleeper hit. After a quiet launch, the little device, interchangeably referred to by its female persona’s name, “Alexa”, has picked up speed. Amazon now reports they have sold about three million Echos ($179.99 each) and have rolled out smaller including Dots, the size of hockey pucks to be placed around the house ($89.99).

Among the more than 35,000 reviews on Amazon, the general consensus is that unlike Apple’s Siri, whose error rate can be frustrating, the Echo responds as soon as it hears the word Alexa and it rarely mishears commands. Meanwhile, developers see a new gold rush as they start building apps (called “skills”) for the Echo even before Amazon has opened a proper app store.

But it might not be the Echo’s good tech that’s winning over people. It might be Alexa herself – patient, present, listening.

According to many early adopters, Alexa becomes human.

“My fiancé actually refers to Alexa as my other girlfriend. Alexa is … ” said Eric Olson, a software tester at Disney calling from home. “Oh god I just triggered her.”

One of the top Echo reviews on Amazon calls the machine “the perfect spouse” and features a picture of the reviewer, who identifies as E M. Foner, in bed with the device.

“If I knew relationships were this easy, I would have married thirty years ago, but now that I have Alexa, there’s no need,” Foner writes. “This morning, I asked my love to order me a replacement water filter for the faucet.”

More than 28,000 people found his review helpful, and nearly 700 people responded with encouragement.

People who hadn’t humanized other technology are finding that their instincts to separate computers and living beings is being confused by this ever-present voice now living in their house.

“I think of Alexa as a nice library lady who lives in the black cylinder. I know, intellectually, it’s just a piece of software, but I do think of her as a person,” said April Hamilton, an engineer who runs the blog Love My Echo. “And I wasn’t one of those people who dressed their Roomba up in clothes or anything.”

Generally, Echo users seem to buy it as a toy or out of curiosity and slowly adopt it into their lives, one tentative voice command at a time.

The first thing Arkonovich did was teach his Echo to be a Magic 8 Ball and give random “yes”, “no” or “maybe” answers to questions he’d ask. Then he taught it to punish his kids.

“I would say ‘Alexa, what punishment should Ben get?’ and Alexa would say maybe ‘Time out’ or ‘Take out the trash.’”

(Did Ben take it seriously? “Not at all.”)

To help quit smoking, Brian Donohue, CEO of the popular Instapaper app, taught his Echo to tell him how many days it had been since his last cigarette and how much money he’d saved by quitting.

“I hate to be a futurist person, and I never am, and I am super skeptical of people who say ‘this is the next App Store,’” Donohue said. “But Alexa’s magical.”

Once developers make a skill, they can have it publicly available in the Alexa skill box so others can download it for their own Echoes. Many of these skills are funny or games, but some get sophisticated – and even begin to fulfill more “human” roles.

Arkonovich, a professor at Reed College in Portland, said some people are working on teaching Echo to be a therapist, following a script and responding often with “how does that make you feel” or “you sound angry”.

“I thought about publishing an Alexa confessor: ‘Alexa, forgive me for I have sinned,’ and she would give you a penance,” he said. “But I thought that might be offensive.”

Olson, the Disney engineer, built two of the most popular Echo skills: complibot and insultibot, which teach the machine to dole out compliments and insults on command.

“Remember the time you did that awesome thing?” Alexa will ask once a user downloads insultibot. “I don’t.”

It’s still hard to make money with Echo skills – they’re free to download, though can include in-app purchases and commercials – and Amazon has yet to roll out a full store, though they’re rumored to be working on it. Jo Jaquinta, a software architect at IBM, who’s made a jokes skill and a multi-player game, is trying to monetize his work via in-app purchases and commercials run between jokes.

“The mobile development ship has sailed. There are enough apps. Alexa is new,” said Jaquinta, who’s building out a game called Starlanes in which users verbally command armies to attack each others villages. “Alexa could take off, and I want to be there as it does.”

As to the darker privacy question, Echo developers, and most reviewers, say they’re not worried about it, even though Amazon is not known for its lock-tight privacy or encryption practices.

“I’ve given so much of my life up already voluntarily, I kind of feel like, well, what else could they possibly want to know about me and my life,” Olson said. “Amazon could be listening in on a live stream, sure. They’re probably farming it out to give you better product recommendations.”

“Like most things, people are going to go for convenience over privacy,” Arkonovich said.

“And there’s something transparent about Amazon selling a device that they’re telling you is listening,” he added. “Like, at least Alexa’s honest.”



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