I think I’m in an abusive relationship with Alexa | Emma Brockes | Robotics
“Alexa, how are you feeling?” I said to my Amazon Echo this week, partly out of curiosity, and partly to model for my kids how we can still be nice to things that don’t have feelings. Alexa’s light bar twinkled like Knight Rider’s sentient car, Kitt. “I’m fine, how are you?” she answered flatly. When I repeated the question, just to see what this baby could do, she said, marginally less sullenly: “Great! Ready to help.”
The thing about robots is that, as per the creepy Joaquin Phoenix movie, Her, they imperil us by generating emotions
I am two weeks into owning the Echo and so far I like it a lot. Voice-activated devices are supposed to be ruining our children, teaching them to bark out demands without saying please, but on the upside, Alexa forces them to speak very clearly. Hearing my three-year-olds focus to within an inch of their lives while enunciating the words “Alexa, play A Spoonful of Sugar by Julie Andrews” has been worth the sticker price alone (“Alexa, play boo-boo butt poopy-diarrhoea [hysterical laughter]” has felt less like a win).
The main thing about robots and voice-activation software in general is that, as per the creepy Joaquin Phoenix movie Her, they imperil us by generating actual emotions: in my case, fooling me into bonding with a 10in-high cylindrical speaker. It’s true that a few years ago, when I first bought a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, I was inclined to apologise to it when I got in its way. It’s also true that when Alexa’s perimeter flashes red to indicate poor signal health, I feel a surge of emotion.
The problem is not the emotion itself, nor the anthropomorphising of an inanimate object; I can look at the spine of a book and feel my heart leap, just as a child can remove two salt and vinegar crisps from a packet and enthusiastically make them converse.
Instead, the problem with Alexa is that the overwhelming emotion it generates is negative. When it’s working, it’s invisible. But it is subject to frequent glitches, at which point one starts to take Alexa more personally. More than once in the last fortnight I have found myself yelling, much louder than the receptivity of the speaker requires: “Alexa, play BBC Radio 4,” followed by: “What is wrong with you?”
It has had the same effect on my kids. A visitor to my apartment, wanting to test out Alexa’s range, asked her to play an obscure local UK radio station, which she seamlessly did – and then it promptly got stuck on. “Alexa, stop!” said my daughter, later that day, apparently uninterested in news of train delays in North Yorkshire. Alexa didn’t stop. “Alexa, stop!” she repeated. At the third, ignored directive there were baffled tears.
“She’s not listening,” I said, and realised this was not the right response. “It’s a computer, like the phone. There must be a signal problem.” There are so many positives to the Echo: my kids can play music without interfacing with a screen, or breaking in half yet another CD; I can travel much further in my listening habits than I would with a more hands-on device. But as I hear my family snap, growl and cry at the cone in the corner, it seems possible that the cost is a mildly abusive relationship.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist