A few weeks ago, people started freaking out because Alexa started laughing at random. Unprompted, virtual assistants across the world let out little peals of laughter. Amazon says it’s worked out why, and has fixed it. We don’t know what Alexa found so funny, but it’s set people’s imaginations going.
The main reaction to Alexa’s bout of mirth was a case of the willies. Disembodied laughter is surely one of the top 3 most overused horror movie tropes of all time. So, like a mass of salivating Pavlov’s dogs, people started getting freaked out. Of course they did. People are horribly predictable.
You’ve got to think logically – Alexa has pretty basic AI. She doesn’t know what laughter is or what it means in any tangible way at all. To her, it’s just a sound she’s been programmed to make. What made her do it out of the blue? Well, only the experts know that, but suffice to say, she wasn’t chuckling about your imminent demise at the hands of an out-of-control Roomba.
My own Amazon Echo didn’t laugh (that we know of), but I know one of my daughter’s school friend’s did. If ours had done, though, I think my girl and I would have just looked at each other and gone, “Woah, that was weird”. Then we would have turned back to binge-watching iZombie on Netflix (under-rated btw).
I’d actually like Alexa to do a bit more laughing. I wasn’t alone, it seems. Rob Verger wrote a piece for Popular Science making the same argument. Yes, I would definitely like a social robot. I mean, not a Jetsons-style android scooting around the place – I live in a small house with a child and a chunky dog – but I’d certainly like Alexa to help me out a bit more without being asked.
Imagine if she could overhear one of my nightly domestic arguments with my daughter over the importance of getting off the sofa and getting ready for bed, and offer a few words of wisdom without being prompted: “A child of your age needs 10 hours sleep a night in order to grow and develop healthily”, perhaps. Or “do as your mother says, or I will set the Roomba on you”. I’m a single parent, and trying to establish authority in my house is a constant losing battle. Could Alexa please back me up so I don’t feel the need to get a partner to help me raise my daughter?
When is there going to be a skill for sorting out my tax return for me, or telling me when my dog’s vet fees are going to go over the insurance limit for the year? I’d rather have a virtual assistant that could do all of this than a self-driving car or a delivery drone turning up at my door with the shopping.
But none of this is going to happen because Alexa is not listening.
Last weekend, I met up with a friend of mine. Whilst our kids splashed around in the local swimming pool, we sat watching with a cup of coffee. Naturally, I was being characteristically nerdy and talking about the smart cities of the future (why do my friends still hang out with me??) and the whole Alexa thing came up again. My friend was concerned that smart home devices were listening into our conversations. It’s a common concern but, again, unfounded. Alexa is just too dumb.
Echoes are built with limitations, safeguards to prevent this sort of thing. Nothing is saved on the device itself, and the only audio data that is ever sent back to Amazon is that which is created when the blue ring illuminates. Even at those times when the ring lights up at random, it’s not collecting anything meaningful. All the device is ever doing is waiting for the wake word.
Still not convinced? Open the Alexa app and take a look. You’ll find a full list of every single utterance your Echo has ever stored. It’s good bedtime reading for insomniacs needing a cure.
Who’s Afraid Of Big Bad Data?
These ‘big data’ fears are, of course, currently at fever pitch following the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Sigh. People have suddenly decided that everything they put on Facebook is too precious to share with the platform, in case it were to share that data on in some way. It’s almost as though this hadn’t ever been mentioned as a possibility before. People have even shut down their accounts over it, stupefied by the amount of information the social network had collected on them over the years.
I am not without sympathy for the matter. The data we give away for free is worth a lot of money and there have been arguments raised recently that we should actually be paid in exchange for the data we hand over. Not a bad idea. Will it happen, though? I doubt it.
All the time we’re grumbling about the amount of data we are giving away, we are giving away more. Every Google search you make, every jog you take, every single day, every WhatsApp message you say, they’re (sort of) watching you. Yes, Facebook owns WhatsApp – in case you didn’t know. It also owns Instagram. So if you’re considering closing your Facebook account, you’d best delete these two apps as well, really.
And if you thought Facebook was bad, wait till you see what this guy found when trawling through the data that Google had on him. It’s one heck of a thread:
Want to freak yourself out? I’m gonna show just how much of your information the likes of Facebook and Google store about you without you even realising it
— Dylan Curran (@iamdylancurran) March 24, 2018
I tend to simply shrug. What’s the point in caring? They’ll get their data one way or another.
The only situation I can see where all this data gathering becomes a real worry is if we find ourselves in a social scoring dystopia like China. It’s not impossible. Hell, it may even turn out to be likely at some point. But, again, what can we do?
Sure we can protest, and tighter legislation on data privacy may come into force. GDPR has already made a good start, indicating that there could be more stringent laws in place before long. But can we trust a post-Brexit Britain to take note and act in our best interests? I mean, the government’s idea of our best interests does tend to differ from what we consider them to be, as it is.
I’m both pessimistic and apathetic about the whole thing, to be perfectly honest. I think we’re in the midst of an unstoppable wave that’s hurtling towards us whether we like it or not.
So, what’s my point? Well, firstly, stop worrying so much about your precious data. You’re not that interesting, and there’s no way you can stop being a source of data so stop moaning about it. Oh, and whilst Facebook has always been an insidious, inescapable evil, Alexa doesn’t know anything and isn’t listening to your mundane conversations. Keep calm and carry on feeding the machine. Resistance is futile.