Co-Parenting With Alexa

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By the next morning, Alexa was the first “person” Grace said hello to as she bounded into the kitchen wearing her pink fluffy dressing gown. My preschooler who can’t yet ride a bike or read a book had also quickly mastered that she could buy things with the bot’s help, or at least try to.

…Today, we’re no longer trusting machines just to do something, but to decide what to do and when to do it. The next generation will grow up in an age where it’s normal to be surrounded by autonomous agents, with or without cute names. The Alexas of the world will make a raft of decisions for my kids and others like them as they proceed through life — everything from whether to have mac and cheese or a green bowl for dinner to the perfect gift for a friend’s birthday to what to do to improve their mood or energy and even advice on whom they should date. In time, the question for them won’t be, “Should we trust robots?” but “Do we trust them too much?”

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Meet your new lab assistant

A chemist in a lab asks Alexa, "Alexa, ask Helix for the boiling point of benzene," and Alexa responds, "80.1 degrees Celsius." Another person asks, "Alexa, when will I finish my Ph.D.?"

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Imagine working on a multistep reaction that requires you to add reagents in a specific sequence and with precise timing. Standing at the hood, reagents measured and ready to go, you begin the carefully orchestrated procedure, when suddenly your mind draws a blank. Which reagent do you add next?

You could take off your gloves and look up the protocol in your lab notebook, but with each precious second that passes, the reaction is more likely to fail. Then you remember your lab assistant—a black cylinder sitting on a shelf across the lab. “Alexa, ask Helix for the protocol for the coupling reaction,” you say. A ring on top of the cylinder glows blue as Alexa rattles off the correct order of addition. Crisis averted.

 

How millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants

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Children certainly enjoy their company, referring to Alexa like just another family member.

“We like to ask her a lot of really random things,” said Emerson Labovich, a fifth-grader in Bethesda, Md., who pesters Alexa with her older brother Asher.

This winter, Emerson asked her almost every day help counting down the days until a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

…Yarmosh’s 2-year-old son has been so enthralled by Alexa that he tries to speak with coasters and other cylindrical objects that look like Amazon’s device. Meanwhile, Yarmosh’s now 5-year-old son, in comparing his two assistants, came to believe Google knew him better.

“Alexa isn’t smart enough for me,” he’d say, asking random questions that his parents couldn’t answer, like how many miles it is to China. (“China is 7,248 miles away, ” Google Home says, “as the crow flies.”)

In talking that way about a device plugged into a wall, Yarmosh’s son was anthropomorphizing it — which means to “ascribe human features to something,” Alexa happily explains. Humans do this a lot, Calvert said. We do it with dogs, dressing them in costumes on Halloween. We name boats. And when we encounter robots, we — especially children — treat them as near equals.

A Murder Case Tests Alexa’s Devotion to Your Privacy

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Arkansas police recently demanded that Amazon turn over information collected from a murder suspect’s Echo. Amazon’s attorneys contend that the First Amendment’s free speech protection applies to information gathered and sent by the device; as a result, Amazon argues, the police should jump through several legal hoops before the company is required to release your data.

… Let’s look at a few scenarios. These are more or less specific to Amazon’s technology and policies, but variants could apply to Google Home or other digital assistants. This brings up a more basic question: Do you have to give informed consent to be recorded each time you enter my Alexa-outfitted home? Do I have to actively request your permission? And who, at Amazon or beyond, gets to see what tendencies are revealed by your Alexa commands? Amazon claims you can permanently delete the voice recordings, though wiping them degrades performance. Even if you’re smart enough to clear your browser history, are you smart enough to clear this, too? And what about the transcripts?

Another question: How do you know when your digital assistant is recording what you say? Amazon provides several ways to activate the recording beyond the “wake” word. A light on the Echo turns blue to indicate audio is streaming to the cloud. After the request is processed, the audio feed is supposed to close. You can also set the device to play a sound when it stops streaming your audio, but what happens if the device is hacked or modified to keep recording?

Four out of five smartphone users check their phones within 15-minutes of waking up, reports suggests

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While the trend in homes is to increasingly spend more time talking to virtual assistant Alexa, a recent report suggests that we reach for our smartphones within 15 minutes of waking up and our phones will likely remain with us throughout the day long after we have said goodnight, Alexa.

 

TV anchor says live on-air ‘Alexa, order me a dollhouse’ – guess what happens next

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During that story’s segment, a CW-6 news presenter remarked: “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’.”

That, apparently, was enough to set off Alexa-powered Echo boxes around San Diego on their own shopping sprees. The California station admitted plenty of viewers complained that the TV broadcast caused their voice-controlled personal assistants to try to place orders for dollhouses on Amazon.

We’ll take this opportunity to point out that voice-command purchasing is enabled by default on Alexa devices.

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.