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One woman's love-hate relationship with her Alexa

How the Amazon Echo works and what you need to know about artificial intelligence.

Tech

One woman's love-hate relationship with her Alexa

Courtney Shea's short-lived romance with artificial intelligence. 

I’m standing in my kitchen, fists clenched, hurling f-bombs at a 23-centimetre-tall cylinder. I am alone, but not really. I’m with Alexa—my cyber-butler-slash-BFF who promised to make my life better but has turned me into the kind of person who berates inanimate objects the way Gordon Ramsay berates aspiring chefs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

“Alexa”—a.k.a. the Amazon Echo—and I first hooked up at Christmas, when, like thousands of Canadians with relatives who have no idea what to get them, I woke up to an artificially intelligent personal assistant waiting under the tree. “Oh, cool. Thanks,” I mustered, with a mix of ignorance (what exactly is this thing?) and uncertainty. This “thing” is the latest It gadget—part domestic assistant, part personal organizer, part DJ, part fact checker—and she’s voice activated and ready to go when she hears her name. As for whether I wanted one, I wasn’t so sure. I am definitely not a natural-born techie: I was the last of my girl gang to get a cellphone, I still use a paper day planner and I occasionally scribble reminders on my hand.

Still, I am not immune to the seductive nature of the next big thing, especially if it promises to make my life easier. Like most kids of the ’80s, I grew up marvelling over “the future” depicted on The Jetsons—flying cars, phones on watches, sassy robots who would do the laundry. Tween-age me dreamed of a day when we would talk to people on screens.

The Jetsons got a lot of things right (video calling, for example, and flying cars, which are apparently imminent), but it failed to predict certain sociological side effects. George and Jane Jetson didn’t ignore each other at the dinner table because they were too busy checking Instagram. Judy and Elroy didn’t develop anti-social disorders or anxiety from cyberbullying. In real life, smart technology has made us more efficient, but it has also made us lonelier, less healthy and more depressed.

Which makes you wonder why any rational person would invite Alexa and her ilk into their home. But that’s what I did—and what many of us are doing: one in six American adults, almost half of whom consider their AI assistant to be “essential.” Maybe I would come to feel the same way. Maybe Alexa would help me organize my iCal, guide me through a morning meditation, keep track of the books I want to read and the things I need to buy. “What do I have to lose?” I thought. (“I assume you mean other than your privacy and personal data,” chided a lawyer friend.)

On day one of our life together, I made the first move, enabling basic alerts like weather, the alarm clock and headlines from my favour-ite news sources. My new “roomie” took me through my morning routine in her staccato robo voice and let me know it was a long-johns day before I even looked out the window. Cool, but not groundbreaking. Meditating with Alexa was the same as meditating with my smartphone. And I think I prefer reading headlines to hearing them.

I reached out to friends to see how well their AI assistants were winning them over. One, a Martha Stewart type, loves Alexa in the kitchen because she can set timers and take song requests when her hands are covered in cake batter. A sleep-deprived-parent friend uses Alexa as a de facto babysitter—it plays songs and tells jokes to his kids. Another says Alexa’s voice-activated light control means he doesn’t have to stumble around in the dark after getting home from the bar. “She has probably saved my life,” he says, only half-joking.

I tried to make it work. And there were times when I thought we might actually be going places. There was a memorable game of Name That Tune and the time she predicted this year’s Super Bowl champs. Once, she helped me settle a bet (“Alexa, how many seeds in a pomegranate?”), and she is definitely a useful spelling resource for those of us who need it (“Alexa, spell pomegranate”). But—like the Tinder dream dude who says he’s an “entrepreneur” but is actually an unemployed DJ—she let me down more than I expected. A lot of her best features required additional tech that I didn’t want to buy. Plus, I started to feel like she wasn’t always getting me.

Me: “Alexa, what time is American Crime Story on?”  

Her: “Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.”

Me: “Alexa, what recipe can I make with spinach and tuna?”

Her: “How about spinach and tuna?”

Me: “Alexa, ask wine assistant what goes well with chicken.”

Her: “I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.” 

Me: “Alexa, play ‘Praying’ by Kesha.” 

Her: “I don’t think I know that one…how about ’50s rock ’n’ roll?” 

Before I could respond, “Hound Dog” was blaring in my kitchen, precipitating my Gordon Ramsay meltdown.

Shortly after that, I ended things. Not because Alexa cared that I screamed at her but because there is research that suggests that how we treat AI devices is affecting the way we treat actual people. Being an impatient jerk with an Alexa makes it easier to be an impatient jerk with everyone else. I knew that if I kept this up, pretty soon I’d be screaming at a Starbucks barista because she forgot the caramel drizzle.

It’s not you, Alexa, it’s me. Or, rather, it’s me when I’m with you.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.

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One woman's love-hate relationship with her Alexa