I am a technologist and I make my living building what are called “voicebots”: digital assistants that you can interact with by just speaking to them. I was part of the team that launched the Amazon Echo to general availability in the summer of 2015 and I have been working all of my professional life — more than 20 years now — building human language technology, such as speech recognition software and natural language understanding AI.
When I was part of the Amazon Echo team back in 2015, it never occurred to me — not even once — that giving the voice assistant a human name could be an issue worth debating, let alone a decision that could negatively impact real human beings, many of whom children. I don’t remember once having a conversation with my Amazon colleagues about the matter. At the time, we were all feverishly focused on one thing: adding more capability to the Echo to help Alexa “grow up” from a tiny “baby” that barely spoke to an assistant that could. From Jeff Bezos — who famously said at the time that he was happiest when he worked on Alexa — all the way down to us lowly product managers and engineers, the spirit was earnestly mercenary. We felt that we were the luckiest people on earth: we were doing good by helping people access information with minimal effort and at the same time we were building groundbreaking technology. As we worked (most of us routinely more than 12 hours a day), we had no idea that this thing that we were building so frantically would become a global phenomenon. We were just hoping that, first, it would not crash and burn spectcularly the way the Amazon Fire Phone had in the summer of 2014, second, that it was not going to be a fad and that it would stick and not die out.
It has now been seven years since the launch of the Amazon Echo, and today, two things are obvious to me: First, that the Amazon Echo and its imitator smart speakers (such as the Google Home) are no passing fad: they uniquely deliver true value of users and empower many people (for instance, the disabled, or seniors, or those who are temporarily incapacitated due to an accident), to be more independent, less at the mercy of other for simple but important pleasures of life, such as turning on music when you want to, finding out what time it is, being reminded to take your medicine. And second: that Amazon made a big mistake when they gave their voicebot a human name.
As several stories that have been published recently about people whose name is Alexa (BBC, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News) poignantly illustrate, the decision to bestow the human name of “Alexa” upon a robot that can now be found in the home of tens of millions of people around the globe, has effectively canceled out the name of real, flesh and blood human beings. If you are an adult and your name is “Alexa,” you cannot today answer the question, “What’s your name?” without bracing yourself for an eye-rolling wisecrack, and often worse, from someone who thinks that they are the very first person to connect the dots. If you are a child, be prepared for far more brutal treatment — not from bullies, but from your friends who just can’t resist teasing you. Can you imagine living your day tip-toeing around your name? I can’t.
The reaction from many of the people around me and from most of the people in my industry — at least those who have dared to speak up (for some reason, the silence has been deafening) — has been: “Ok, we get it, but what’s the big deal?”
My response to this has been: ‘Do we really get it? Can we really imagine ourselves actually dreading — just because our name happens to be our name — the basic workaday stuff, such as one-on-one professional encounters, public encounters, encounters over Zoom, encounters over email, encounters with the baristas, with the CVS pharmacist, with our doctor, with airline ticket counter agents, every hour of the day, every day of the week? And if we can imagine, do we think that it is OK for more than 130,000 thousand human beings in this country alone who are called “Alexa” to have their life turned upside down just because a big tech company, who is already swimming in cash, decided to give their robot a human name just so that they can earn even more cash?’
As a society, we have thankfully evolved from the naive consumers of physical products that we were a few decades ago to discriminating customers who cannot be easily bamboozled by merchants who, deep down, believe that whatever harm their products may be causing consumers — asbestos, tobacco, cars without seat belts, mercury, lead, etc. — well, that is just the cost of doing business. It took a lot of hard work and the relentless push of consumer protection groups to move us from those early days when we served as human fodder for those intent on delivering optically pleasing quarterly numbers. It is time that we evolved in the same way when it comes to our other equally important health: our mental health.
My wish is that the story of all the Alexas out there who have been quietly robbed of their identity, will force us to begin moving away from our current naive ceding to Giant Tech companies important decisions that affect our lives in deep ways. Addiction to apps, distraction, privacy invasion, online bullying and stalking, democracy decimation, and now identity hijacking: this is the stuff of the invisible pollution discharged by giant IT companies. It’s time that we expanded the scope of consumer protection to include mental health under that umbrella of protection.
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