Monday, January 16, 2017

Now Alexa is Making us Dumber

This weekend, I had what I’m going to call an Alexa moment.

I wanted Alexa, that voice-recognizing, music-playing wonder, to regale me with Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” because Alexa is my musical slave and we’re paying $149 for Amazon Prime Music and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it.

Alexa, however, had difficulty digesting my request, responding to my “Alexa, play ‘Mas Que Nada’” with the “I can’t understand your question” response.

“Alexa, learn Portugese,” I said sarcastically.

“I have located a lingerie store nearby,” she beamed. “In Idaho Falls. It closes in four minutes  . . .”

My kids giggled uncontrollably while I shouted over them: “Alexa, play ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ and don’t embarrass me again.”

Alexa obliged.

I could end the story right there, echoing what Alexa O’Brien writes today in The New York Times (and in case you’re wondering, yes she does complain about Amazon appropriating her name for its devices):

“Amazon’s promise is that Alexia is ‘always getting smarter.’ Through big data collection and analytics, she will come to know us in ways we can’t even know ourselves. My worry is that she will make this Alexa dumber. The platform offers endless choices, virtual connections and access to a world of information, but that this major-domo of the ‘internet of things’ may deliver is reductive banter, mindless consumerism and a universe of trivia.”

To quote Brent Spiner’s character Bob Wheeler from the 1980s sitcom “Night Court,” “What a buncha Gloomy Gusses.”

Alexa is not making my family dumber, lingerie-salesmanship aside.

She’s encouraging us to learn things – I will forever remember it’s Sergio Mendes who is responsible for Mas Que Nada, thanks to this foul-up, because I looked it up afterward to make sure I had the right song in mind. And I didn’t ask Alexa to do it, figuring I’d let the fingers to the walking.

She’s encouraging us to think. Our youngest, an NFL football nut, was brought to tears by Alexa’s inability to offer him NFL scores shortly after we invited five Echo Dots into the house after Christmas until he learned that with Alexa, often rephrasing a question can get results. Now, if Alexa is stymied by a request, he carefully considers how to rephrase his question – sometimes even writing it out longhand – before he asks. And when he gets results, he remembers how to ask so in the future, asking Alexa is easier. Maybe this’ll translate into better communication skills overall as we point out to him that often, with human beings, you have to rephrase your questions in order for others to understand you.

Alexa is helping our family expand our musical interests. Time spent huddling around a screen listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Ethel Merman and Eddie Arnold can now be spent in other rooms of the house, free of a screen, as they work on homework, we play a game, or we drift off to sleep. My wife has discovered the joy of Glenn Gould playing Bach. I’ve discovered the joys of Pentatonix. And thanks to Alexa’s timing feature which will shut off music after a given time, we no longer have to brave dark, LEGO-infested bedrooms to turn off radios (isn’t that quaint) whose buttons are in different places model to model and difficult to find in the dark.

And there’s a lot out there to discover. “I have to re-think,” my wife has said on more than one occasion, “into not having Alexa play what I know, but finding out what Alexa can play for me.” There’s a lot out there, always expanding the breadth (and possibly the depth) of our listening pleasure, though I have to take Amazon Prime music for having a limited repertoire from the likes of Tak Shindo and Bill Anderson (my musical tastes are pretty peculiar; a favorite wake-up song is “Chicken Fat” sung by Robert Preston).

I’m now wishing Alexa had the ability to turn off lights if I ask her to do so. (If I’m willing to pay the money for smart switches, indeed she can. But I’m not there yet; the cost benefit of having Alexa turn off my bedroom light every night at the sound of my voice isn’t at the $60 for the switch threshold.)

O’Brien seems concerned, oddly, that we’re being rude to Alexa somehow, and – again, somehow – that rudeness is, well, rude. She doesn’t explain it well. Here it is, in toto:

And Alexa may not be the only one adapting. We talk to Alexa in the peremptory tone we reserve for barking at chat bots, snarkily dismissing interlopers in our social media feeds, or frustratedly answering staccato telephone menu trees. People do not talk to their dog the way they speak to Alexa.

Not that I want a HAL-9000 AI talking to me – or listening in, waiting for just the right moment to tell my our household AE-35 Unit is about to go kerflooey – but I find O’Brien’s “rude talk problem” amusing. If you think talking rude to Alexa is a problem, then soften your talk, you hard-bitten East Coaster. Maybe Flyover Country is having more fun and learning more with Alexa than you’d like to think. At least we will be, once I get back from the lingerie store.

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