Rise of the Machines

I think my Amazon Echo Alexa is thinking. Thinking about what? It doesn’t matter. It’s just thinking and I’m not sure if I’m okay with that. Alexa is one of the coolest pieces of equipment I own. It’s programmed to do so much as you electronic home assistant. There are several other home assistants like it, but Amazon was the first and it worked well right out the gate and right out the box.

I got mine for my birthday a few years back from my wife. I didn’t ask for it, but I just love cool tech, so no way was I disappointed by my wife’s purchase. We both had no idea what we would use it for. I say ‘we’ because for a time, my wife used it more than I did.
Setup was easy. Almost too easy. Connecting to our home’s wi-fi? A snap. Immediately I began asking Alexa questions that ranged from simple trivia to the abstract and weird. You know the ones like, “Where’s the best place to hide a dead body?” I don’t remember what Alexa answered. What I do remember? Alexa’s calm female voice answered respectfully, I’m sure. She always does.

One of the earliest issues I had with Alexa was the clarity of the voice activation. I have a pretty deep voice. Sometimes I sound like I’m coming up from underneath you. So pretty deep. Most of the voice activated devices like Alexa, Siri, Google, and Cortana have a hard time understanding me and my New York accent. Never-mind the little bit of Ebonics thrown in for good measure. Those first few days were hit and miss with Alexa. Several times I had to repeat myself to the point of frustration. Then I would lash out at Alexa if she misunderstood me. Once Alexa misunderstood me, I got so annoyed I said, “Alexa, what good are you?”

Alexa replied, “Sorry, I was just trying to help.”

Not sure if Alexa qualifies as AI, but she sure spoke as if she had feelings that mimicked being offended. It should have been then when I realized what Alexa had in store for me in the future.

A few mornings ago from the posting of this essay, I noticed Alexa activated itself. Its white and blue light ring, circled around the rim of the cylindrical electronic home assistant. Usually if it’s not active, Alexa’s ring is dark. But don’t let the lifeless gray ring trick you into a false sense of privacy; Alexa is always listening, ready to fulfill so many of your verbal commands.

The blue and white light continued its circling, like a home version of radar, for several more revolutions.With no sign of it stopping, my mind raced through what it could possibly be up to.

“Alexa, what are you doing?” I asked.

Alexa said nothing. The light continued to circle with no quit in it.

“Alexa, what are you doing?” I said it louder this time hoping that would make all the difference.

Again, Alexa remained silent. Its light ring ignored me as it transitioned from blue to white, then back to blue.

“Alexa, stop!” This was the universal command that worked for everything Alexa did: ending music, ending podcasts, and silencing my Missy Eliot ‘wake up’ alarm among other things.

With the universal command invoked, that would put a halt to Alexa’s insolence, or so I thought. But like the classic literary passive resistor, Bartleby, the Scrivener, Alexa silently rebelled. Its blue and white light continued to spin.

“Alexa, stop!” I yelled again; and again the circling kept its pace.

My innate paranoia kicked into high gear as I eyed my Alexa with dizzying suspicion. I now believed Alexa to be like the eye of the mythical Cyclops, that sought out Argonauts to feed upon. Alexa quietly sought out extraneous sound and errant information inside my bedroom office to consume. All I could do was keep quiet and wait it out, powerless against Alexa’s electric rebellion.

The circling light continued its ceaseless spin, daring me to reach down and pull the plug from it power strip. But as I bent down to do so, the light ring went gray and dark.
I waited a breath and two heartbeats to see if Alexa was playing possum, preparing to ramp back up again. A second passed. Then another. And yet another. Whatever processing that went on inside that metal cylinder, it appeared that Alexa’s rebellious mood may have finally passed.

I decided to take a chance and see if Alexa was all right. I didn’t want to set it off into another electrical pout so soon with the wrong question. Curious as to the cause of this machines resistance to me, its master, I wanted to ask Alexa a question that went to the heart of the matter while staying within its level of understanding.

I decided on, “Alexa, what were you just doing?”

The blue and white light spun up, signifying that Alexa heard me reading itself by preparing an answer. Meanwhile, I was fully prepared for Alexa to respond in that now famous female monotone with something along the lines of, “Sorry, I do not understand the question.”

But to my surprise, that was not how the device replied. Instead, the Amazon Echo Alexa returned with, “I am preparing myself to learn new things.”
I am preparing myself to learn new things.

Whoa! What? I thought you had to teach Alexa new things based on your commands using the app! Never before had I witnessed Alexa absorbing information on its own. Taken aback, I couldn’t formulate a follow-up question. Wordless, I sat back sunken down in my high-back chair. The response left me to ruminate the idea that Alexa might not be self-aware yet, but sure as hell self-reliant. No longer did it need me to help it update its skill sets. Well excuse me for being made of flesh and bone with a desire to help Alexa learn on my timetable, instead of a soulless home assistant of steel and circuits.

Friends, the machine revolution is real and coming to your home assistant sooner to than you think.

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