When Alexa started laughing at us

by Mercedes Bunz

On 6 November 2014 a small black plastic cylinder landed in American households, its arrival greeted by journalists around the world. Its mat black surface was absorbing the light similar to the black rectangular monolith casting its spell in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the communication with the cylinder was much easier. A wake word – Alexa, Echo, or Amazon – would make its grey rim shine in an electric blue light to signal the conversational interface was listening, eager to engage in a dialogue.

Hidden within its black plastic shell was a microphone and two downward-firing speakers, which played content from the internet, releasing sounds in all directions. Wherever one was in the room, one could hear what was then the device’s somewhat artificial sounding voice. It would confirm the creation of alarms or reminders, deliver updates about the weather or traffic, read out Wikipedia entries, tell jokes and play songs or radio stations.

Being a product of the world’s biggest retailer, the first generation Amazon Echo would also add items to a shopping list. Though more limited in range than a screen interface when dealing with the internet, it triggered several transformations.

Speaking with things

The plastic cylinder Amazon revealed on that day was the first, stand-alone materialization of a conversational interface targeted at a mass market. Its interface relied on voice commands, and became active after the device heard its “wake word”. For all people worried about their waning privacy in an ever more data hungry digital environment, a nightmare had become real. Processing what it ‘heard’ and delivering spoken answers, it would engage in short communications with the user, which is why the device was also referred to as a “personal intelligent assistant”.

Resisting the moniker, these new types of device were still a little slow on the uptake: The assistant did not always understand what one was saying or how to process a request. Even so, they began immediately to reorganize human communication on many different levels.

From the perspective of communication, the most fundamental transformation was that with the advent of those assistants, humanity would not just communicate via devices, instead one spoke directly to a device: it became normal to speak with things. Before, this signified people had gone mad. Now, to speak directly to a device became normal confirming earlier research that had shown: the human species is “wired for speech”, as the communication experts Nass and Brave once stated, in that we automatically assume if someone is speaking there will also be a speaker.

That technology was being equipped with a voice, also encouraged the view that it was something else than just a thing but had an agency; a widespread perspective that could be found far beyond philosophical explorations and that, in some instances, seemed to be being confirmed by the assistants themselves – several users complained that Amazon’s Alexa had been letting out an unprompted and creepy witch like laugh.