Tuesday, February 21, 2017

'Alexa, stop!'

At WSJ, "Alexa, Stop Making Life Miserable for Anyone With a Similar Name!":

“Alexa, stop!” Joanne Sussman screamed in her living room.

Immediately, the computer living inside her Amazon Echo speaker stopped playing her favorite music station. Simultaneously, Mrs. Sussman’s 24-year-old daughter, Alexa, froze on the stairs.

“What, mom? I’m taking the laundry down,” human Alexa shouted back. “What do you need?”

“I always liked my name, until Amazon gave it to a robot,” says Alexa Sussman, a recent New York University graduate who works in marketing.

The artificial-intelligence invasion is upon us, in the form of disembodied personal assistants we can give orders to, query and, in some cases, try to converse with. In hopes of getting us used to our new artificially intelligent family members, the technology companies behind them have given the machines mostly female names to go with their soothing voices.

Apple Inc. picked “Siri.” Microsoft Corp. chose “Cortana.” ( Alphabet Inc.’s Google opted to keep its software nonhuman, calling it “Assistant.”) Amazon.com Inc.’s choice, as it happens, was the 39th most popular girl’s name in the U.S. in 2006. That means in some homes the plan has backfired: The effort to make a gadget more humanlike has earned it human enemies.

In the Sussmans’ household in Levittown, N.Y., the confusion cuts both ways. Last week, when human Alexa’s father, Dean, asked her to grab some water from the kitchen, Amazon’s Alexa wanted to help, too. “Amazon’s choice for water is Fiji Natural Artesian Water, pack of 24. It’s $27.27, including tax. Would you like to buy it?”

When he told his daughter to move the living-room chair, Amazon’s Alexa yelped, “Ready to pair!” Robo-Alexa had a command for Mr. Sussman himself: “Go to the Bluetooth devices on your mobile device.”

The microphones in the $180 Amazon Echo and the smaller $50 Echo Dot are always listening for “Alexa,” which is their default “wake word,” the phrase causing it to start paying attention to commands. Amazon lets users change the wake word to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or, starting this week, “computer.”

But many users aren’t aware. The Sussmans found out about the setting a year after buying the device. They have decided to keep “Alexa” because they say they find it funny.

Amazon has sold more than 11 million Echos and Dots since 2015, Morgan Stanley estimates, and it is working with partners to put Alexa into other products, including Ford Motor Co. cars and General Electric Co. lamps.

Some human Alexas want nothing to do with her.

“Oh, your name is Alexa, like the Amazon thing?” Alexa Duncan, 33, says she hears all too often these days. She refuses to buy the Echo.

Amazon says it named its Alexa after the ancient Egyptian Library of Alexandria. The company hasn’t offered any formal apologies to the human Alexas.