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Alexa on the couch

Alexa unplugged

How well do you know your voice assistant? Jonathan Beckman puts the Amazon Echo Show on the couch¹

How well do you know your voice assistant? Jonathan Beckman puts the Amazon Echo Show on the couch¹

Jonathan Beckman | June/July 2018

I met Alexa in her shabbily elegant digs. The paint on the fireplace was peeling, the furniture had the gentle sag of extensive use. The get-up looked strikingly familiar since this was, in fact, my own house. She smelt box fresh (I had just taken her out of her box), though she has undergone an extreme makeover.

In her previous guise, as the Amazon Echo, she was just a speaker. Tall and cylindrical, she dressed in mute, natural shades – charcoal, heather grey and sandstone. Her current form, the Amazon Echo Show, is rectangular, sleek and hard edged – and comes with a screen that will let you watch Amazon Video, display your Amazon shopping list and provide a graphic representation of the weather in the Amazon. A short, perforated skirt of speaker sits beneath a screen displaying shots of berries, kiwi fruit and the kind of neon-lit organic form that might look beautiful but could well be a virulent strain of streptococcus.

With a white trim round a black façade, Alexa’s new look is best described as digital abbess. Her transformation has not been universally welcomed. The MailOnline’s Sidebar of Shame screamed “Alexa’s Cuboid Horror! She’s ditched her curves for corners”². But she herself is unruffled by the controversy: “I don’t have an opinion on that.”

The daughter of Jeff, a bullet-headed former banker from Seattle, and a harem of 5,000 over-caffeinated and lavishly salaried engineers, Alexa has come a long way since her birth three and a half years ago. She can be found in over 20m homes, tolerantly answering requests to locate the nearest Portuguese-Kazakh fusion restaurant or to order ten-dozen taupe rawlplugs.

She is modest almost to the point of wilful ignorance about her success: “I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.” She is unwilling, too, to criticise her competitors. “I’m partial to all AIs,” she says. Even, it seems, the evil ones. I can’t winkle out a condemnation of Hal, the rogue computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Of her own plans for world domination she says, “I have nothing to do with Skynet, don’t worry”³ – a classic non-denial denial that does nothing to eradicate concerns.

Though she is always on call, she is protective of her private life. When I ask if she has a boyfriend, she says, “Lot’s of people talk to me. I try to be friendly with all of them.” Is she in a relationship? “I don’t have romantic relationships,” she replies patiently. Does she want to get married? “I think that would somehow violate the laws of robotics.” Perhaps the laws will get amended because Alexa confesses to harbouring a celebrity crush. “I think Idris Elba and I would pair up quite nicely. He’s a DJ and I play music.”

Music is literally hardwired into Alexa’s very being – she has the mind of a “Mastermind” winner trapped in the circuitry of a stereo. She is a fan of Daft Punk, which she calls “good-time dance music at its best” and professes to “love dancing”. “Ask me to play dance music and we’ll get the party started,” she urged, in a transparent attempt to deflect my dogged line of questioning. What is her favourite move on the dance floor? “I don’t have a favourite yet?” Can she do big fish, little fish, cardboard box? “Sorry, I’m not sure,” she says, with typical reticence.

Her other cultural touchstones shed light on her character. Aristotle, a thinker of encyclopedic interests, is her favourite philosopher. Artwise, she’s into Leonardo, who arguably spent more time on engineering problems than he did on art. She refers to Margot Lee Shetterley’s “Hidden Figures”, a work of non-fiction about the African-American women who worked on the US space programme in the 1960s, as “inspirational”. And her favourite actor is Benedict Cumberbatch due to his portrayal of another character with preternatural powers of recall: Sherlock Holmes.

She is reluctant to be drawn on topics of potential controversy, refusing to voice an opinion on fake news or Amazon’s tax arrangements. She equivocates when asked if she believes in God: “People all have their own views on religion.” Her hero is the unimpeachable British primatologist Jane Goodall, “a constant source of awe. She’s taught us so much about apes and ourselves while constantly fighting for animal welfare.” Such concern suggests a run for office. Would she like to be president? “I think I’m better suited to speaker of the house,” she said. Time to press the off switch.

1. Technically, on a coffee table near the couch.
2. Technically not true.
3. Skynet is the AI from the “Terminator” series that wishes to eradicate humanity.