Amazon promises to fix Alexa’s ‘creepy’ laugh

Not joking: Amazon employs 5,000 people to work on Alexa and is advertising for 1,100 more.

Would you want Alexa in your home? The AI assistant can answer questions, play music and switch off your lights. But recently it has begun “randomly” laughing at users for no reason…

“There’s a good chance I get murdered tonight”, tweeted a man named Gavin Hightower ominously.

The reason for this premonition? He was drifting off to sleep when Alexa, the artificial intelligence (AI) assistant built into his Amazon Echo Dot, let out “a very loud and creepy laugh”.

He was not alone. Other Alexa users started reporting that their devices were refusing to follow orders to turn off lights, reading out names of local funeral homes, or letting out “bone chillingly creepy” giggles.

Like Hightower, many users panicked. Some unplugged their speakers. Others recalled Stephen Hawking’s warnings of an AI apocalypse. In its news report, BuzzFeed described it as “basically a bloodcurdling nightmare”.

Amazon has now said it is working to fix the problem — and offered a more level-headed explanation. Alexa has been mishearing the phrase “Alexa, laugh”, a spokesperson said.

In other words, the “creepy” incident was caused by the very thing that has made Alexa so popular in the last four years: it is all about the voice.

Until now, digital technology has always involved a physical interaction: typing, tapping, clicking, scrolling, swiping. Users have had to learn to respond to the hardware. But AI assistants do the opposite; they are learning to respond to humans.

Alexa uses machine learning technology to constantly improve the way it understands speech. This means processing huge amounts of data, and learning from previous mistakes. The end goal is for an assistant that can hold long conversations with its users, while picking up on subtle nuances in their speech. But this is still a long way off, as seen in recent weeks.

Amazon has sold “tens of millions” of Alexa devices since launching in 2014. Now, other companies are catching up; Google and Apple have released their own smart speakers in the last year. One research company predicts that there will be 143 million voice-controlled devices worldwide by 2022.

Is this a good thing?

The last laugh

Absolutely, say some! Alexa has its hiccups, but the benefits far outweigh them. The apps (or “skills”) are designed to make life easier, and they do — whether you are checking the weather or breaking up a fight between siblings. Using your voice to control computers feels natural, because that is how we communicate with each other. It is nothing to be afraid of.

Don’t trust it, argue others. The laughter may not be a sign of the apocalypse (yet) but it does demonstrate one of Alexa’s most troubling features: it is always listening, even when you think it is not. And Amazon is at the other end, a multibillion dollar company fast becoming the biggest in the world. No thank you.

You Decide

  1. Do you have Alexa in your home? If not, do you want to?
  2. Should we be afraid of artificial intelligence getting too clever?

Activities

  1. Write a short story which is based in a world where AI has started ignoring its owners and making its own decisions for real. What consequences would this have, and how would humanity respond?
  2. In groups, design your own “skill” for a voice-powered assistant like Alexa. Think about what would be most useful or entertaining in your home. Then present your idea to the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”

Edsger Dijkstra

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Alexa is not always recording your conversations and storing the data. However, it is always listening for its “wake word”: Alexa. If it mishears you (if you were addressing someone named “Alex” for example) it might spring into life and start recording and responding to you. These recordings are then stored on one of Amazon’s servers. If you want, you or your parents can delete them from your account.
What do we not know?
How many Alexa devices have been sold, as Amazon is famously tight-lipped about its sales figures. Although it encrypts Alexa’s actual voice recordings, and says it would not pass them on to third parties, we do not know if this will change in future. We also do not know how popular voice assistants will become over the coming years.

Word Watch

Echo Dot
Amazon’s own-brand speakers are known as “Echo”. The “Echo Dot” is a smaller, cheaper version which sells for £49.99.
Fix
The company will disable the phrase, and Alexa will respond to similar commands by saying “Sure, I can laugh” before the actual laughter occurs.
Machine learning
A type of artificial intelligence that involves computers acting (and learning) without being programmed by humans. It is behind many of the biggest recent developments in AI, including self-driving cars.
143 million
According to the research group Rethink, which estimates that there are 21.3 million devices today. It also predicts that voice will overtake typed searches in the same period of time.
Breaking up a fight
“Kids Court” recently won a prize for the best Alexa skill that has been developed for kids. It features “Judge Lexy”, who listens to disputes between children, makes decisions and doles out (fun) punishments.
Multibillion
Last month, Amazon overtook Microsoft as the world’s third-largest company. Its market value is now $702.46 billion, according to Fortune.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.