Hi Alexa! Please Leave.

I have always been a bit skeptical of how technology continues to become more and more a part of our reality. Yet, I can’t seem to help myself from using it. I recently purchased an AirBnB and had no idea there was a fellow lady in the household. Her name was Alexa. I actually didn’t even realize ‘She’ was in the room until ‘her’ name was said on the TV and ‘She’ responded (quotations used for significant effect of using a female name to humanize technology). I was a little freaked out to at first considering I had no idea ‘someone’ else was with me. But, as most of us do with technology, I couldn’t help myself from using it daily and it becoming a part of my subconscious routine.

Alexa is “first a wireless speaker, but capable of much more. Using nothing but the sound of your voice, you can play music, search the Web, create to-do and shopping lists, shop online, get instant weather reports, and control popular smart-home products—all while your smartphone stays in your pocket.” [1] This simple speaker, with the addition of a strong database, now has become like a personal/digital assistant. And similar to the trend of miniaturization [3], Alexa continues to get smaller and smaller in size, but bigger and bigger in data capacity. She learns about our personal data  and “every month the technology becomes smarter, using real-time experiences to adopt a more sophisticated approach to serving our needs (while simultaneously collecting more data).” [3]  Luckily, Alexa is not always getting smarter. She only listens after her wake word is spoken [2], but how are we supposed to know and trust that? According to Amazon, they only want to use the the data collected for building a marketing profile for the user [4]. This data library is what makes Alexa special, it allows ‘her’ to truly be the digital assistant that, due to current trends in technology, that we crave. This library is stored in “the cloud in order to respond to your requests (e.g., “Send a message to Mom”), to provide additional functionality (e.g., speech to text transcription and vice versa), and to improve our services. We also store your messages in the cloud so that they’re available on your Alexa App and select Alexa Enabled Products.” [2] The use of big data by Amazon allows Alexa to feel so real and to feel like someone truly understands who we are in our own home – which personally, I think I’d rather have ‘her’ just hear what music I want and keep my home a bit more private.

[1] https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/what-is-alexa-what-is-the-amazon-echo-and-should-you-get-one/

[2] https://www.androidcentral.com/amazon-alexa-what-kind-data-does-amazon-get-me

[3] https://www.mydomaine.com/amazon-alexa-privacy-concerns–5a63f86666a5e

[4] https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-echo-and-google-home-voice-data-delete/


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7 comments on “Hi Alexa! Please Leave.”

  1. I completely agree with your line of thinking that the intrusion of the smart technologies is occasionally way too high. However, I think that some aversion to it may be just because of its novelty. E.g. when Uber just started, people would be averse to the idea of getting into a stranger’s car. I think that eventually the convenience brought about by these technologies will displace our concern for their safety.

    1. Yes, I totally agree that the initial intrusion of smart technologies and voice assistants like Alexa and Google assistant may be too high for some individuals. For sure it will take time to get accustomed to the fact that our closest friend in the future might be the built-in voice assistant that understands our needs and preferences like no other person. However, what I believe is that people might not understand the opportunities and capabilities that come along with these early versions of smart assistants. Assistants that are connected to other smart devices can potentially be a huge relief and serve many tasks that can now be solved through a voice command. Also, people do not understand that as long as we are not making our data more available via interacting with smart assistants, the technology will not be able to learn and improve as much as would be possible. So if people embraced smart technologies a bit more, the value proposition of smart speakers would increase faster which would ultimately benefit the consumer.

  2. Thanks for posting. This is a typical data-driven technology vs data privacy dilemma. On one hand, data-driven technology is a data-hunger, which needs to be fed more data to provide better performance. On the other hand, people are worried about abuse of personal data, like exposing DOB, address, daily routines, etc. There is no perfect answer yet, hopefully, an interesting field in AI research, called privacy-preserving data mining (PPDM) can find the answer for us.


  3. I think one of the things about Alexa which warrant consideration also is that it is a treasure trove of not just data (as you said), but very specifically, voice data — and from this Alexa could do a lot more when it comes to speech and voice recognition.

    It’s notable because of the different variants and dialects of the same language is often used around the world, and tech such as Google’s assistant has already ‘picked up’ Singlish, which is a spun-off version of English that is generally only used in Singapore (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/how-did-google-s-digital-assistant-pick-up-singlish-9509590), and it incorporates vocabulary from other languages and dialects. Yet now we have the capacity to ‘teach’ these devices to understand nuances in these languages, which i find fascinating!

  4. Reading this article reminds me of the book 1984 where there is a telescreen in every room. Everybody is always afraid to misbehave in front of those screens because “big brother is watching you”. Of course that book presents us the absolute worst of possible futures, but I agree that, now that technology is so wide spread around us and more and more reaches the capability to automatically understand what we say, do and want, we should be very mindful when it comes to data collection and how that data is used.
    On the other side, having a personal assistant waiting in the virtual queue of a phone center sounds appealing to me and could safe us a lot of time. As long as nobody loses control over his personal data.

  5. When I first met Alexa I was shocked as well. I have been in a friend’s house and I couldn’t believe that there was a machine that could do so many things just by calling its name. I totally agree that there is a progress in technology that do not allow humans to familiarize themselves with the existing one before move to the next more intelligent technological innovation. Still people have to face a dilemma : you either use the new technology and you adapt to the changes or you are left “behind”.

  6. I think that many others have already mentioned Alexa is a representation of the trends that are forming in information technology. Here is a system that is changing the paradigm by which humans interact with technology. That trend is then compounded by the fact that technology continues to grow in a world full of data. Without a continuous stream of information, “examples”. the Alexa system would not improve in the way that we have come to expect from our technology.


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