Alexa came to live at my house about 18 months ago. Ever since, ours has been an uneasy relationship — especially after She started responding to television commercials that called Her out, or to conversations where I was on the phone with my video director Alex, or to anything else that even sounded remotely like any combination of the letters in Her name.
And especially now, since, as my wife has said all along, we know for a fact She’s listening to us even when we don’t want Her to.
We are not friends, Alexa and I. Yet for some reason, I still have this strange, literally bizarre, compunction to be nice to Her. I have this seemingly ingrained need to be positive with Her. To be polite.
I am not an idiot, I know She is not real and that She is not even a She and that what passes as a She is actually just a collection of numeric sequences in a database somewhere trying to foist Itself off in some form that is recognizable and comfortable for me.
Calling In The Experts
It’s the comfortable part that’s not working. Again, for some reason I feel the need to be as nice to Her as I would be to my grandma, even though I know better.
So I realized I actually needed some help in this arena. I went to one of the nation’s leading behavioral shrinks, Dr. Bill Kearns of the University of South Florida in Tampa, to try to figure out why I react this way. If you saw Kearns’ resume and credentials you would say, “Oh yeah, definitely the guy you should call.”
I know Alexa is just a stupid Thing. I know It is just a stupid Thing in a box. I know It is basically a hockey puck with a microphone that can also search the internet. But when I ask Her something and She gives me an answer that I like, I feel this compulsion to say “Thank you.” And when She tells me how She cannot help me, which happens way more often than not, I feel that same compulsion to tell Her to go jump in a lake.
But I never do.
Why do I edit myself like that?
Alexa doesn’t even do that much. Yes I have seen all the commercials. I realize that She could run my life if I let Her. Frankly, setting things up to let Her do that is more work than I’m willing to do for the trade-off. I would rather use my little fingers to flip on a light switch for the rest of my life than spend dollars and at least one Saturday rewiring my house so I could walk in or call ahead and tell Alexa to do it.
Alexa Doesn’t Make The Friend List
And She is balky. Ask Her to play a song and you are equally likely to hear that song, or some version of it you wish you had never heard, or simply be told that you can’t hear it because you have not paid for access to it, even though you have Amazon Prime and also know there are 78 versions of it on YouTube and you have played them all before.
Here’s a short list of things I am thankful for in my lifetime:
- I am thankful for the internet. It has made my life and work a whole lot easier. It has also made it harder for me to go hide in the library all day doing nothing in the name of research, like I used to could do, but that’s the trade-off.
- I am thankful that I have never answered the door at my house and seen a cop standing there looking for me (well, once, but I mean that was a really really really long time ago and I can explain).
- I’m even more thankful that I’ve never gone to the door and seen a cop standing there looking for one of my children, who are all grown now, so that worked out.
- I’m thankful that no significant pieces of my body have fallen off.
- I’m thankful for giant-ass TVs just because who wouldn’t be.
I’m sure there is other stuff.
Alexa is not on that list though, I’m positive of that. And still I am nice to Her. And still I wonder why.
Robots And Children: A Case Study
Turns out it’s because I’m afraid of Her. Let me tell you what the doctor said.
In a recent study, some horrible person put a bunch of children in a room with a robot, and asked those children to interact with said robot.
They responded as children should: They beat the crap out of that robot. Yay humanity!
But then this horrible person who started the experiment changed it up. After taking a beating, according to Dr. Kearns, this robot was then told to make some sort of aggressive move towards the children.
Now I don’t know what that really means, and neither did Dr. Kearns, so honestly all I can picture is Awesom-O from South Park, or the robot from Lost in Space or something like that, I can’t even go so far as C-3PO. So, whatever defines an “aggressive move” by a robot towards children — that cannot be prosecuted — is what I am going to assume this was, and the good doctor assumes said same, and we just left it at that.
Regardless, whether it was a right hook or just a shifty glance, here’s what happened.
After the initial butt-kicking and the aggressive response towards the children came in return… the little snots turned off nice! They started treating the robot like one of their own. Dr. Kearns said it was as simple as age-old human interaction: The robot passed the jump-in, like you had to on the playground if you ever moved and went to a new school – once it took the licking, it was accepted as part of the gang. It cleared the bar, it became one of the crew.
Now, that’s what Dr. Kearns says.
Are We Scared Of Technology?
Here’s what I says: Those kids were scared of that robot after it bit back.
And that’s me and Alexa. That’s why I’m nice to Her. That’s why I’m not not-nice to Her – I understand She is ever-vigilant, always listening, likely monitoring, and in that regard… I’m scared of Her!
My wife has always thought Alexa was listening and reporting back to Jeff Bezos on His throne about what kind of toilet paper we’re ordering and just why we won’t pay 45 cents to hear the original version of “What’s Up Pussycat” in perpetuity.
I’d like to be a little more gracious and a bit less suspicious than that — like to be, but as we have recently found out, my wife was right all along.
But even given my more holistic appreciation of Alexa and artificial intelligence as a whole, even if She’s not up to no good, turns out She’s up to no good.
That’s what Dr. Kearns said – and this was a mind-blower for the ages, so pay attention.
Even if Alexa is not a nefarious Spybot, She’s still part of how we ourselves are building Skynet (if you don’t know what that means, go watch a Terminator movie – that’s the IT system that enabled the computers to take over the world and make humans slaves to the machine and fodder for extermination).
So regardless, She’s up to no good. She may not be actually about the business of exterminating humankind, but She is getting over on you regardless.
We’re Programming The Machine
Dr. Kearns says that anytime we ask Alexa anything – or even search for anything on the internet – we are contributing to a global database that grows in complexity daily. That’s how It learns. We are all running around out here every day assuming It’s finished and complete and here to serve us.
No sir. Every time we are online and enter any combination of keystrokes, we are contributing to the never-ending evolution of The Machine.
So yeah, some day when the Terminator movies are seen as documentaries instead of highly entertaining fictions, that will be why – all our fault.
Interacting with emerging technology “carries with it a certain degree of concern, or being circumspect about the prospect that it could be a spy,” Dr. Kearns agrees. “As your wife points out correctly, there could be somebody listening, we don’t know.
“The things said to It, you might want to have the benefit of the doubt and hedge bets in case the guy listening on the other side is somebody who could get into your bank account and siphon off $10,000. Just be mindful, not everything comes free of charge — at what point does the tool become the master? When you’ve given it enough control over your credit cards and bank accounts to pay your bills… how much control are you willing to give over to a machine that could be hacked?”
End of the day, The Machine, turns out, is much less of a concern than the human rats behind it.
I don’t know if Alexa is really pumping me for information 24 hours a day. The better angels of my nature would like to think She’s not. The lesser angels tell me all day, every day, that She is. Recent news developments reinforce that.
We found a simple solution to the problem – we just unplugged Alexa. Just ignored Her otherworldly pleas for Her continued existence and yanked the cord right out of the wall.
We’ll go back to looking up movie times and making restaurant reservations on our phones, the way the good Lord intended.
Some day we may plug Alexa back in – but not until the rest of you have proved to us She’s not the dawning of the Apocalypse.