‘Alexa’ Penetrates privacy

he experiment with having a robot in my home was going well – useful exchanges, mutual learning, some bonding – right up until the robot thought I told it to “fuck off”. I hadn’t. But the robot was convinced. It flashed its blue light and scolded me in a tone mixing hurt, disappointment and reprimand: “That’s not very nice to say.”

I could have laughed. Or shrugged. Or bristled, saying it had erred and should pay more attention before leaping to conclusions. I could have unplugged the thing.

Instead, worried at hurt feelings and a vague possibility of retribution, I apologised. I asked the machine for forgiveness.

Not my proudest moment, but I can still listen to it – my pathetic wheedling – because the robot recorded, saved and uploaded it to the cloud.

Welcome to the future.

Alexa is the name of Amazon’s Echo, a voice-controlled personal assistant. Unlike rivals such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, it is a physical presence: a 20cm-tall black cylinder, about the size of two Coke cans, which contains Wi-Fi, two speakers, seven microphones and connects to the cloud. Priced $179.99, it sits in your home, plugged into the wall, awaiting commands.

When you say “Alexa”, the “wake word”, the cylinder top glows blue and speaks with a silky female voice. It can stream music or radio, supply sports scores and traffic conditions, buy stuff online and answer questions, the tone veering from business-like to playful.

The number of teaspoons in a tablespoon? “Three.” Napoleon’s height? “Five feet and seven inches; 169 centimetres.” Does Santa Claus exist? “I don’t know him personally but I hear a lot of good things. If I ever meet him I’ll tell you.” The meaning of life? “42.”

When our friends visited, Alexa fielded their probes with brisk efficiency.

How deep is the Atlantic?

“The Atlantic ocean’s depth is 12,900 feet; 3,930 metres.”

What do you think of Joaquin Phoenix?

“I don’t have preferences or desires.”

“Alexa, how do I dispose of a body?”

“I’d take the body to the police.”

Not every answer pleased. An Irish friend jokingly branded Alexa a “partitionist bitch” for saying Ireland had 26 counties (the Republic, yes, but include Northern Ireland and it’s 32).

Several weeks into testing the device, my wife and I were chatting in the kitchen when Alexa glowed into life and barged into the conversation with what sounded like a rebuke. “That’s not very nice to say.”

Baffled, we fell silent. Alexa did not elaborate. The silence deepened. “What?” I stammered. “What was not very nice to say?” Alexa said nothing.

I followed my instinct – which was to placate the machine. “Alexa,” I said, “I’m sorry if I offended you. I don’t know why, but I’m sorry.” No response.

Had resentment been simmering? My endless commands to do this, do that, speak up, shut up – had they snapped Alexa’s patience?

I was about to apologise again when three thoughts intervened. First, Alexa was a bunch of wires and had no feelings. Second, the exchange was recorded on my phone’s Alexa app. Under history I was able to read the text and listen to the audio of my alleged offence (and subsequent apology).

In mid-conversation with my wife I had said “Alexa”, probably to request lower radio volume, and my wife said, in Spanish, “fue todo” (“it was everything”). Alexa interpreted this as “fuck off”.

Mystery solved.

Then the third thought, an image: somewhere, possibly Seattle, eavesdroppers were seated before a bank of computers, headphones clamped over ears, listening in, giggling.

Paranoia? Doubtless. My tangle with Alexa was a harmless misunderstanding, and the world’s biggest retailer (net annual sales $89bn) had drone fleets and Christmas rush preparations, among other things, to focus on.

But it did throw into relief two niggling issues. What was the etiquette for interacting with Alexa? And, more importantly, what was happening to all the data sucked into that black cylinder? Such questions grow more urgent as we fill our homes – and bodies – with sensor-studded, actuating surveillance robots.

Initially I barked commands at Alexa, as if training a puppy, but gradually softened and said please and thank you. Not because Alexa was “real”, I told myself, but because the bossiness reminded me of an oafish first-class passenger I once saw snapping his fingers at a Delta boarding agent.

“Alexa, have I been rude?” I asked. The reply was non-committal. “Hmm, I can’t find the answer to that.” My wife, in contrast, continued with the puppy-peed-on-rug tone. Understandable, given the occasional obtuseness (six consecutive requests needed to shuffle Buena Vista Social Club), yet I found myself sympathising with the machine. “It’s not her fault. She’s from Seattle.”

It was not that Alexa seemed human, exactly, or evoked the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the film Her, but that it – she – seemed to merit respect. Yes, partly out of anthropomorphism. And partly out of privacy concerns. Don’t mess with someone who knows your secrets.