business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There’s been a weird story going around this week, about how Amazon’s Alexa-powered digital assistants, have in some cases started laughing for no apparent reason.

Not just laughing. It was, some folks said, sort of an eerie laugh. And sometimes, people said, it would happen in the middle of the night, with no prompting.

While there has been no explanation for the unprompted laughing, Amazon has responded to the controversy by saying that under certain circumstances, Alexa misinterprets words it hears as “Alexa, laugh.” Now, it says, it has changed the programming so Alexa does not respond to that phrase. Instead, if you want Alexa to laugh, you have to say, “Alexa, can you laugh?” This phrase, it says, is likely to have fewer false positives.

The New York Times writes this morning that the stories have reawakened concerns about the technology:

“Critics have argued that the always-on devices pose a threat to privacy and security. There have been reports of children ordering items through the devices without parental consent, and last year Burger King took advantage of the devices by incorporating a command into a commercial.

“Despite those concerns, the technology has been widely embraced. Reports vary on just how many Americans use such devices, but all suggest that adoption is relatively high.”

In fact, surveys suggest that as many as one in five USA adults use the technology in one form or another.

I, for one, being someone who always will go for the easy laugh, am a little disappointed that they’ve disabled the “Alexa, laugh” prompt. And I’m even more disappointed that when you ask Alexa if she can laugh, all you get now is a little “tee hee.”

I know this seems like I’m not taking the privacy concerns seriously enough, but I’d less that worried about this. The world needs more laughter. I actually wouldn’t mind if every once in a while my Alexa system burst out in a guffaw or a chortle; if it did, I’d ask it to tell me what was so funny.

For the moment, I just have to occasionally satisfy myself by asking Alexa to explain the Prime Directive to me. Or, asking it to beam me up.

The responses tend to be Eye-Openers.
KC's View: