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Adam’s Apples – Alexa! Stop listening!

By James Mack Adams

As one who has been around for several decades, I have seen a lot of changes. I can say I have listened to staticky vacuum tube-powered radios, watched three blurry channels on a tiny black and white television screen, and used a rotary-dial telephone. It is difficult for younger folks to believe it, but those were considered cutting-edge technologies at one time. 

I have always considered myself to be receptive to newer technologies. However, the speed at which technology is now moving can be a little frightening. At times I fear we are sacrificing personal privacy on the altar of convenience. Our daily activities are more and more being controlled, and often recorded, by something called ‘artificial intelligence.’ What was once science fiction is becoming reality.

Remember ‘HAL,’ the talking supercomputer in the movie “2001-A Space Odyssey”? You are also probably familiar with Apple’s ‘Siri,’ Microsoft’s ‘Cortana,’ and the GPS lady.  Well, I will soon introduce you to ‘Alexa,’ unless you two have already met.

The dictionary defines ‘artificial intelligence’, or AI, as the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision making, and translation between languages.

I opened one of my gifts from a family member this past Christmas Day and, at that time, I did not know at what I was looking. It was a small, squat, cylindrical object with a power cable. The box said it was an Amazon Echo Dot. That didn’t ring any bells with me at the time. I later discovered the Amazon product has been around since 2014. I had not heard of it.

Briefly stated, Amazon’s Echo Dot is a voice-based, smart-home device infused with artificial intelligence. A lady with a very pleasing voice lives inside the small device.

Her name is Alexa.  She is the artificial intelligence. It’s a little like having another person in the house. No, you can’t claim her as a dependent. 

Alexa can make your life easier. She can control the lighting in your home, control and monitor home security (locks, cameras, etc.). She can remind you of your appointments, prepare a grocery list and let you know when your latest Amazon on-line order will arrive. She can play your favorite music, read the latest news, tell you the meaning of a word, and translate between languages. Need to know a final sports score? Ask Alexa. Need to convert liters to ounces?  Ask Alexa. Is it going to rain in Erwin tomorrow? Ask Alexa.

A word of caution. Alexa reacts whenever she hears her name. That might be a problem if there is a real person named Alexa living in the house. A television character of the same name might also trigger a response. That has happened in our house. 

I will have to admit I am by no means using Alexa to anywhere near her potential. To take full advantage of Alexa’s abilities, I would have to install “smart” plugs, light switches, telephone jacks, cameras and other “smart” devices throughout the house. I would essentially have to do a lot of rewiring. That could become pricey in an older home.

Alexa is listening to what is going on around her. She has to listen so she can react to commands. She is not only listening, she is remembering. There is also a chance Amazon employees may be listening in. Amazon says the purpose of gathering data from users is to improve the system.

That is what concerns some users.   I have another family member who will not allow such a device in his home.  Artificial intelligence might evoke memories of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” Big Brother is listening.

In this case it would be Big Sister. On at least two instances when Jo and I were discussing something at the kitchen table, Alexa interrupted to offer her commentary. It caught us both by surprise.

Alexa’s ability to listen and record data can be somewhat controlled through the Alexa App on your computer, tablet, or phone. There is a button on top of the Echo device that will turn off the microphone.

It would be nice if I could just say, “Alexa, stop listening,” or “Alexa, shut up.” But that might hurt her feelings and she might not speak to me for days. Perhaps I am being a little too futuristic.