Last week at the annual MARS convention in Las Vegas, the head scientist for Amazon’s Alexa, Rohit Prasad, revealed a controversial new feature for the popular virtual assistant. Most critics summed up this new technology in one word: creepy. In the near but unspecified future, Alexa will have the capability to listen to a recorded voice, and in less than a minute, be able to replicate it perfectly.
On the surface, such a feature sounds cool and innocuous, a natural outgrowth of AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology. It was however, the very specific application that Prasad showcased that had the tech world buzzing. In his soft and gentle voice, Prasad reminded us that at its core, Alexa has not merely been a tech toy, but a companion, especially during the darkest and most isolated days of the pandemic. In order to strengthen this relationship between man and robot, Amazon’s ultimate goal is to make Alexa more human, more compassionate, and more empathetic.
As an example, Prasad showed a video clip of a little boy asking Alexa if his deceased grandmother could finish reading The Wizard of Oz to him. The little guy smiles as an obviously familiar female voice narrates the tale of the cowardly lion finding his courage. While AI cannot minimize the child’s pain at losing his grandmother, continued Prasad, it can preserve her memory forever, ostensibly by Alexa precisely mimicking the voice of the boy’s dead grandma.
In doing my research for this article, I found that roughly 95% of commentators who opined on the matter gave Alexa’s new trick a hard pass. As noted above, the pervasive adjective was “creepy.” The New York Post called it a “macabre impersonation function” while another critic argued that keeping the voice of the dead alive through Alexa would interfere with children’s ability to process the natural cycles of life and death.
I find it interesting that the media got so hung up on the creepiness of dead grandma’s voice that they neglected to ponder the true implications of this new mimicry feature as well as ignoring the other new information Amazon revealed about future plans for Alexa. But before we discuss Alexa and her plans to become your new bosom buddy, allow me to digress and talk about some of the creepy things we do to memorialize the dead and why Amazon’s video clip received such negative press.
I have a friend who keeps the last voicemail her mother ever sent to her on her phone. Her mom has been dead for five years. Is this creepy or sweet?
In the cemetery in Queens, NY where my father is buried, there is a section for Bukharan Jews. Their headstones are magnificent, a glossy obsidian that looks brand new no matter how many years have passed. Many of the stones have a carved-out likeness of the dead etched onto the stone, their faces preserved for eternity. I don’t know what it is about those headstones, but I am discomfited by them every time I visit my fathers grave.
Who gets to decide what’s creepy and what’s sentimental? There is no right way to grieve, nor is there any right way to commemorate the dead. One man’s creepy is another man’s treasured nostalgia.
Clearly it seems that creepy is in the eye, or in this case, in the ear, of the beholder. Amazon wanted to pluck at our heartstrings in order to further humanize Alexa. Emotion is a powerful selling tool; anyone who’s cried through a commercial can bear witness to this fact. Alas, in their attempt to play us, Amazon inadvertently hit a wrong note. Instead of eliciting the warm fuzzies, the grandma video was poorly received by the majority, eliciting instead revulsion, disgust, and cries of poor taste. If I would have created this video for Alexa’s new mimicry skills, I would have featured a mom on a business trip or a military dad deployed overseas reading a bedtime story to their kids or telling them to pick up their toys.
All of this talk of creepiness and poor taste, however, is peripheral to the real issue at hand which is the technology itself and its ramifications. This more intriguing conversation unfortunately got lost in the brouhaha over its tasteless application.
What’s really chilling and downright dangerous about the technology is not the fact that Alexa can mimic the dead, but the fact that Alexa can mimic anyone at all. Think about what a threat this could be for security safeguards that utilize voice recognition; as per Amazon’s claim, new and improved Alexa could bypass that in a hot minute. Other nefarious uses abound, running the gamut from simple deception to the types of sophisticated crimes seen only in movies. On the most basic level, think about the ethics involved in imitating a dead person’s voice without their permission.
I wonder if the press stopped listening to Prasad’s presentation after the grandma video because, quite frankly, the technology that he discussed for Alexa later in his speech certainly gave me the creeps. In the future, Alexa will use technology called “deep learning.” She will learn your routines. She will monitor your every move, every second of the day. Using common sense derived from her “ambient intelligence,” she will help you with everything in your everyday life. If she sees that at ten o’clock at night you are turning on the house alarm and shutting off the lights, she will ask you, “Do you want me to automate this?” She will have a skill for every single moment of the day.
How she is able to do this is way outside of my scientific comprehension, and at the risk of sounding like a technophobe or worse, a Luddite, this sounds like the kind of science fiction that always ends in disaster. I won’t even share with you the details of a new gizmo they introduced called “Astro” which is a home robot that hangs around the house like a pet, looks like an iPad that got stuck to a Roomba, and has the voice of R2D2.
What if we were able to have Alexa’s technology without any of the repercussions, such as being hacked and having our entire life savings stolen by some teenage computer wizard? Let’s go back to the main premise of Rohit Prasad’s presentation: Amazon is humanizing Alexa in order to garner our trust. Remember how sad and lonely you were during the pandemic? Now, with new and improved and infinitely compassionate Alexa, you never have to be alone ever again. She is not just a virtual assistant, she is a friend and a companion, someone you can talk to who can also intuit your every desire.
In Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, he talks about a trend called “solitude deprivation” which he defines as “a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.” In the old days, oh, let’s say back in the 1990s, we had lots of little moments when we were forced to be alone with our thoughts: waiting in line, walking down the street, sitting in a doctor’s office. Nowadays, these opportunities to be alone with our own thoughts are rare due to how hyper-connected we are through our devices. His entire treatise on this topic is too long to summarize succinctly, but the bottom line is that people need solitude in order to thrive as human beings. “Humans,” he writes, “are not wired to be constantly wired.”
On a personal note, I experience my most creative energy on Shabbos, the ultimate day of rest, when my devices are dormant and my thoughts have the ability to flow freely without any extraneous distractions. Proponents of the “digital sabbath” movement have realized that constant connection is toxic, and followers have used the Jewish Sabbath as a model for how to truly unplug.
A lot of this technology already exists and many of us are familiar with the devices and gadgets that make up a “smart” home. New Alexa, however, promises something more: companionship, camaraderie, and compassion. “We are living in the golden era of AI,” said Prasad, “where dreams and science fiction are a reality.”
Are these technological advances the stuff of dreams or are they really nightmares? Is it possible for a machine to provide friendship and empathy or is that merely an illusion – counterfeit and contrived, created for a generation for whom a cell phone is the equivalent of a fifth limb?