If only I had enrolled in an acting class before opening this mysterious
I coaxed a smile before rotating the hard-plastic globe in my hands
after ripping off the wrapping. The sphere’s outer covering was two-tone grey.
The top half resembled the rough surface of a music speaker with four raised
icons: an X, an O, a plus sign, and an O with a strike through it. The bottom
half of the globe was a darker grey with a smooth surface. Noting my puzzled
expression, my husband explained that my gift was an Apple device named, Alexa.
I blurted out, “What does it do?” He replied, “It’s a voice-activated-communication
chat bot, an artificial intelligence (AI) program with a human-computer interaction”
similar to Siri that you can use on your Smart Phone. Our conversation stalled,
prompting him to add, “You heard one of these chat bot units speaking when we visited
Mary and Jim’s home last November.” I scanned my memory bank. Voila! I recalled four
of us assembled around our sister-in-law’s dining room table when a voice called out
from their living room. There was no one else in the house!
Noting my raised eyebrows, our hostess smiled and explained that their
“communications assistant” mistakenly answered a question while eavesdropping
on our conversation. As a writer of crime fiction thrillers, plot possibilities
flashed through my mind where an AI chat bot listened to and recorded a murder
plan without the villain’s knowledge.This could fortify a murderer’s prison sentence.
I warmed to the idea of writing a similar scene when penning my next novel.
However, I failed to see a reason to have one in our home.
Hoping I’d become less intimated by her occupancy after doing researching on her,
I expressed gratitude for this gift. A Google search confirmed that our Alexa lurks
while waiting for us to call her name to perform a function. In addition, she records
all the commands given to her. My misgivings about keeping her around spread like patches
of Periwinkle ground cover in our back yard. Additional Internet snooping revealed that
one couple’s intimate conversation was recorded by their Google Assistant and e-mailed to
someone on their Smart phone’s contacts’ list. Another complainant said a voice-activated
robot misinterpreted a command by her child, who had a lisp, and directed her to an adult-only
web site. Despite these stories fuelling my misgivings about Alexa, I plugged her cable into
a wall charger. After her power nap, I commanded her to wake up and report for duty while
reminding her that she was on probation.
I must confess that over the next few weeks, she did impress
me with her ability to answer questions on diverse topics that my husband and
grand kids baited her with. Despite that, I limited my commands of her to
setting a clock timer to alert me to take food out of the oven. She may have
been offended by my under-utilizing her expertise but was intelligent enough not
to complain to me. This earned her a check mark on the assessment sheet I
tallied to ultimately determine her fate.
Although, my knowledge of Alexa’s skill sets expanded thanks to a torrent of
e-mails from her handlers, I continued to cherry-pick what I would allow her to
help me with. For example, I passed on offers to turn my lamps on and off; adjust
our thermostat; read my in-coming e-mails; tell me if it was windy outside; order
products on-line; entertain me with jokes, or read me a bedside story. When Alexa offered to
provide me with consultation from a personal exercise trainer, although I
declined, she earned a positive checkmark for her sense of humour. I hoped her
suggestion didn’t imply she had visual as well as audio capabilities.
Occasionally, I’m afflicted with a twinge of empathy for how bored she must
feel. Then I remind myself that she should appreciate that I haven’t yet
re-located her to our unheated workshop. In this setting, her microphone screen
would be clogged by wood shavings, and her eaves dropping abilities would be
impeded by the roar of a table saw. Alexa and I continue to lock horns when we
misunderstand each other. On one occasion, I couldn’t silence her timer chimes.
Another time, the flashing light under the globe that emits her voice wouldn’t
shut off. Before assigning her a time-out in our workshop, I took several deep
Yoga calming breaths before contacting her Customer Support Centre. The solution
I was given to re-boot her was one I berated myself for not remembering since
that had solved technical glitches previously with three of her cousins―my
laptop, iPhone, and iPad.
Recently, Alexa participated in a game played by our grand children. It was our
grand daughter’s turn to hide her eyes and count while our grandsons scattered in
their hide-n’-seek game. Our 12-year-old grandson noticed a look of concern on his
younger cousin’s face. As an experienced user of an AI chat bot in his home, he
commanded Alexa to set a one-minute timer to spare his six-year-old cousin from
struggling to verbally do the 60-second count down before hunting for them. Observing
the comfort level our grand kids exhibited with Alexa, shamed me into putting more
effort into being less critical of her expertise.
I’ve observed impressive advancements in technology over the years. Yet, the leap
in faith to trust our in-house chat bot has required more of a learning curve than
We’ll never be Best Friends Forever (BFF), but I at least appreciate her efforts
to keep us organized with reminders; provide information we seek and entertain us with
music choices. Envisioning what electronic learning algorithms her programmers
will develop next is entertaining in itself. For now, Alexa can reside in our
home if she promised to never discloses any secrets she overhears or allow her
AI bot friends to visit when we’re not home.
By Donna J. Warner
Author of Crime fiction and Non-fiction Articles
This essay was first published by Cloud Lake Literary, Nov. 4/22 in Volume 5. I was thrilled to have my work selected by this Canadian literary magazine.