Yelling at Amazon’s Alexa

Part of living with Alexa involves learning what she’s good at. She’s bad at being a person; get cute and things will backfire.

Excerpt from this article, via @whatleydude:

Part of living with Alexa involves learning what she’s good at. She’s bad at being a person; get cute and things will backfire. “Alexa, what should I eat for dinner?” will yield ho-hum truisms about pizza and vegetables, meant as lighthearted fun. Ask for a joke, and you will end up shaking your head in disgust. In August, Amazon suggested that I ask Alexa for a joke about the Olympics, which I did, to my regret. “Why did the prospector try out for the Olympics?” Alexa asked. She doesn’t wait for a response. If you say “Why?,” as humans do, you will talk over her punch line: “He thought he could pan for gold.” This came out like “guuuld.” All in all, it’s a grim experience. Prompted by an e-mail, I asked her to sing “Happy Birthday.” (Wow: Alexa sings!) Rather than turning my music off first, she lowered its volume, and sang “Happy Birthday” on top of a thin layer of “Naked If I Want To” by Cat Power: a morose party trick, best performed for an audience of one, and served with solitary cupcake, candle, party hat, and noisemaker.

…Yelling, as opposed to poking around on a screen, can help put you in touch with your id. And it adds to the pleasure. One weekend morning, I found myself yelling that I wanted to hear the Grateful Dead. (I have historically been a jerk about the Grateful Dead.) Alexa happened to choose the song I had in mind. I let it play the Grateful Dead all morning, and it reminded me of the seventies country-rock I grew up listening to, and I liked it. It was comforting, washing over me like the ocean.

…But things can get hairy, streaming-music-wise, when you venture into what you don’t want to hear: the wrong band, the realm of their playlists. By yelling, you surrender some control. In July, I hollered for one of my summer playlists on Spotify—a pleasant blend of Yo La Tengo, Grandmaster Flash, Mungo Jerry, and so on—and had a violent reaction when it played one of Spotify’s own summer playlists. (An innocent mistake, I suppose, but enraging: it did not sound like music, and it was as if I had an allergy to it.) I felt vaguely wronged. Amazon’s e-mail suggested that I play an Olympics playlist called American Pride. (“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” the e-mail read. “Cheer on American athletes at the Summer Games with a playlist full of upbeat patriotic tunes.”) I rejected, with a shudder, playlist suggestions such as Classic Rock Dinner Party, Caffeine for Your Ears, and Breezy Summer Classics. In a spirit of perversity, I asked Alexa to play a playlist called Just Breathe, from Amazon Prime, which I knew would be nothing but trouble. Suddenly my apartment filled with unnerving new-age music you shouldn’t hear anywhere but when you’re lying on a slab—maybe you’ve just had acupuncture needles removed, or somebody on TV is in the hospital.