Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet - aside from on the all-seeing eye of the Way Back Machine - there doesn't seem much harm in reposting this feature here for posterity. BECAUSE OF VARIOUS reviews and the fact that Amazon bundles Echo Dots like they're toys in packets of breakfast cereal, I've amassed quite a few smart speakers around my house. Amazon is listening to everything I do, but any concern I might have about privacy issues is always quietly reassured by one thing:
Alexa isn't very smart, is it?
Yes, it can recognise a series of words (sometimes) but play around with the order even a little and it gets confused. This is best demonstrated with guests - especially children - who highlight exactly how Alexa has trained us to talk in very stilted phrases rather than, y'know, like a human. Once you've demonstrated the concept to visitors, they fire dozens of questions at Alexa, before being ultimately underwhelmed when it keeps saying "hmmm, I don't know that one."
It's not just that it often concedes on its ignorance: like a pub quiz deadweight, it's also dangerously confident when it thinks it knows the answer, even when it's comically wrong. A while back, I was writing a Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa smarts-off - kind of like a quiz show, only with fewer people watching the sorry spectacle occur. One question I thought to ask was "How many hairs on a cat?"
The answers were really quite something. This is from Google Assistant:
"On the website catsinfo.com, they say there are approximately 60,000 hairs per square inch on the back of a cat and approximately 100,000 per square inch on its underside."
And the same question to Alexa:
"A cat has 60,000 hairs."
It's obvious what's happened here: either Alexa has only ever seen really mangy cats, or its gone to the same website as Google Assistant, but stopped reading after the first sentence. As a result, it's roughly 39,940,000 out - give or take a few hairs.
That kind of trivia misstep isn't hugely serious, but it does make me dubious about asking Alexa's to do anything that might actually have consequences. Not a chance am I using the Just Eat or Uber apps on Amazon Echo: there's just too big a risk that me ordering a chicken wonton will result in a whole tonne of chicken showing up on my doorstep. Or ordering a taxi to Leicester Square only to find myself in an East Midlands town centre.
And it certainly makes me think twice about putting Alexa in charge of my smart home, in the same way that you don't put the village idiot in charge of emergency services. I have one smart bulb in the bedroom because there's no light switch next to my bed and I'm ridiculously clumsy. Frequently, saying "Alexa, turn off the light," leaves the light shining brightly while the Echo triumphantly lets me know that the task has been completed.
It's not even good at its main purpose in life: selling products on Amazon. There was the whole snafu where it accidentally ordered dolls houses all over America thanks to a TV news item, of course, but out of curiosity I took a look in the app to see what Alexa thinks is on my shopping list - a function of the Echo I have never, ever used. "Tidy up" and "Dog bosch" apparently. My 'to-do' list is even more baffling with its two items: "Five huxley cream" and "Put the laundry light on in America." I think I forgot to do that, but I'm not certain given it MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.
It's no wonder then that Amazon has started crowdsourcing Alexa's intelligence, inviting members of the public to come up with answers to the many questions that have left Alexa stumped. That might help a little bit (providing volunteers can resist the temptation to make Alexa recite all the words to Wild Wild West in response to serious questions), but then it's not really AI, is it? It's a cover band, singing other people's lyrics. More plain artificial than artificial intelligence.
Still, it remains a fun novelty, and it's kind of reassuring to know that Doomsday scenarios where AI takes over the world are clearly some way away. Yes, it's true that Alexa has wheedled its way into televisions, fridges, microwaves, cars and phones, but that's only one part of world domination.
The next stage is actually having the smarts to do something with that omnipresence, and Alexa answer to that question is loud and clear: "Hmmm, I don't know that one." µ