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An Open Apology Letter to Amazon's Alexa

"Is it possible to startle a robot? I think we did."

Published on: June 28, 2017

Amazon Echo and Alexa

Alexa, let me start. I know you never wanted this.

We appreciate you; there’s no question. Your unboxing was a momentous day in our house. A robotic personal assistant with an unfailingly calm and melodious voice that’s ever-ready to brief me on the day’s weather, keep track of my shopping list and never under any circumstances issue gale-force sighs and theatrical moans — you were a revelation. 

The kids were beside themselves, too. They’d long been impressed by the several friends whose homes sported sometimes two or more of you. “Sophie has four Alexas, and we don’t even have one,” they’d said, always on high alert for even the slightest material injustice. After a few weeks of their heavy hints that you’d make us smarter, tidier and more fun, I caved. 

But our home isn’t one you were designed to withstand.

A sleek black cylinder teeming with promise, you were meant to rest on a spotless marble slab next to a well-loved espresso machine (or, at the very least, a Soda Stream). In that orderly world, you’d parse out NPR headlines, intone the latest Audible thriller and reign supreme over a thoughtfully designed smart home plan, orchestrating LED light bulbs and keeping the prosecco chilled. 

Don’t feel bad, Alexa. I want to live there, too.

Let’s be honest, Alexa — you weren’t prepared to field commands from a trio of shrieking counter-height humans.

Instead, you landed here, on a scuffed-up counter amid sippy-cup lids, lunch boxes and half-eaten apples. Let’s be honest, lady — you weren’t prepared to field commands from a trio of shrieking counter-height humans from the moment your soothing blue light switched on. 

Is it possible to startle a robot? I think we did. Let’s give them credit: What the questions lack in subtlety or finesse, my trio make up for in volume.

“Play Katy Perry!” they scream. “No, not that song; the OTHER ONE! Tell us a joke, Alexa! When is it Christmas? Why is it not Friday? What’s Brexit? Say ‘poop!’ Say it AGAIN!”

It’s always about poop, Alexa.

Here’s the problem: You’re a receptacle for demands, and children are demanding. Your endless well of good-natured compliance inspires an outpouring of absurd requests to which there is no end. You’ll never bark “MOM NEEDS A BREAK I’M LOCKING THE BATHROOM” — and they sense that. 

In a way, you’ve replaced me, but I don’t resent you. My weather predictions are hit or miss, my jokes are lackluster at best and I never say “poop” as much or as emphatically as they’d like. I’m human (not to brag) so I tire after a half-dozen rapid-fire queries with replies that rarely satisfy. And that’s where you shine. Like a tireless electronic Stepford mom, you always supply answers, homework help and pleasant small talk — minus the urge to stab someone. 

In time, the kids will learn that you’re more than just some female to order around — or so I hope. I do wonder, Alexa: Would my children be so eager to demand if you responded in a man’s gravelly baritone? Why are robotic helpmeets so rarely male? And while your name sounds especially cute when my preschooler lisps “Wexa?” couldn’t you have been a gender-neutral Alex?

I may be overthinking this, and I suppose that’s why you’re here. By tackling the small-talk questions and keeping track of the grocery list, you free up my mental energy for bigger questions. Like am I doing this right? Will it ever get easier? And for the love of all that’s holy — who pooped?

 

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