Echo Homo: On Bossing Alexa Around

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Today’s post arrives courtesy of Medium.com, a site that alert reader Jessica Ehlers pointed out to me. Previously, I didn’t know this site existed. It’s some kind of networked blogging site, akin to Cowbird and even WordPress, but with random features from Reddit, Tumblr, and other sites that aren’t spelled correctly either. It features think-pieces that run too long for Twitter.

See, for example, “Amazon Echo Is Magical. It’s Also Turning My Kid Into An Asshole.” I know. You’re thinking I should never have even looked at this article. Well, in my defense, I really tried to not read it, but that’s just such a bad headline. It’s so bad that it’s good. Also, Medium promised me a two-minute read.

Early adopter Hunter Walk writes this:

I fear [the Amazon Echo is] also turning our daughter into a raging asshole. Because Alexa tolerates poor manners….You see, the prompt command to activate the Echo is “Alexa…” not “Alexa, please.” And Alexa doesn’t require a ‘thank you’ before it’s ready to perform another task. Learning at a young age is often about repetitive norms and cause/effect. Cognitively I’m not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around but not a person….Amazon, you clearly have a hit on your hands. Can I request one thing? A kid-mode where the Echo only responds to “Alexa, please….” as opposed to just “Alexa.”

Okay. A couple things.

FIRST, I object to the “kid” mode. It is an insult to children, and possibly to adults as well. Why should children be more polite than adults? Doesn’t the ethical responsibility rest with adults, who know better? I have a real problem with teaching children protocols that older human beings ignore.

Furthermore, if “Alexa, please…” annoys a busy adult, it will also annoy a busy child. Children have things to do and places to go. The Complete Works of Beverly Cleary aren’t going to read themselves.

SECOND, Alexa is not a language-user. The Echo is a voice-operated computer. It turns audio input into a series of executable commands. Functionally, the Echo combines a decent WiFi/Bluetooth speaker with a handful of Internet search functions. Saying “Alexa” doesn’t hail an intelligence; it just activates a machine. Saying “Alexa, play ‘The Shiznit'” creates a function string: ACTIVATE (+) PLAY SONG.

Yo, my point here isn’t that Alexa fails the Turing test. That’s not at issue. To the Echo, “Alexa, if you would, please play ‘The Shiznit'” is a command full of noise. Children understand the concept of noise. Speech acts — etiquette included — are context-dependent. In this context, saying “please” and “thank you” makes no sense.

FINALLY, this is really an article about parenting. And if there’s one thing I can’t stomach, it’s a parent asking Amazon.com to make children seem more considerate. When I was four years old, I wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan. The letter read, “Please, Mr. President, stop offshore oil drilling.” (I have written longer letters since then, but not better ones.)

A week later, I received a black-and-white photocopy of my letter, a courteous thank-you note, and a glossy book showing Ronald and Nancy in the White House. At no point, in this thick envelope, was offshore oil drilling even mentioned.

I learned an important lesson that day. An asshole is an asshole is an asshole. You can say “please,” and “thank you,” and be a villain.

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Until next time, this is Kugelmass saying…

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