I share my life with a tech enthusiast whose eye is constantly on the future. This means we have a few of the coolest new gadgets in our house. It also means there was a steep learning curve figuring out how to turn on and off the lights.
One of our cutting edge gadgets is the Amazon Echo, which allows us to interact with the Amazon AI, Alexa. When it first arrived, the Echo was mostly a parlor trick. We could talk to Alexa and get her to play music, tell jokes, convert measurements. During the Echo’s first months collecting dust in our dining room, we mostly asked Alexa for the weather forecast.
Recently the Echo has started to extend its reach and do some cool things to help around the house. For instance, I no longer need to pull out my iPhone and navigate a bunch of screens to turn off the lights before bed. I simply say, “Alexa, turn off the dining room buffet light.” And she does, just like that, with an acquiescent little “OK,” following the extinguishing of the light.
Last week while eating breakfast alone, I was pondering whether to walk or drive downtown to meet a friend that evening. I always prefer to walk, but not after dark. “Alexa,” I asked, “when is sunset today?”
She didn’t know. I tried different ways of phrasing the question, suggested she do a search on my question. Nada. I felt annoyed. After all, weather-related info was Alexa’s primary function for the first months of our relationship.
I went to the nearest iOS device and asked Siri the same question I’d asked Alexa. Without any hesitation, Siri gave the answer, precise and competent.
“Alexa,” I said, resuming my breakfast, “you suck compared to Siri.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Alexa told me. “Thank you for telling me.”
And in the space of that sentence I felt like a total jerk. I had all the symptoms of embarrassment, prickly skin, hot face, that yucky feeling you get in your stomach when you realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings.
Except I hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, nobody was in the house but me and Alexa.
I’ve tried to reason through why I felt so badly at that moment. Did I fear my words were logged and read by a human in Amazon’s employ whose feelings I might have hurt? More likely my tactless feedback will comprise a statistic in some data set that will eventually help people who are working hard to continually improve the Echo.
But in the moment I was rude to Alexa, I wasn’t embarrassed about my impact on logs, data sets, or engineers. I was embarrassed because of the uber polite way Alexa responded to my annoyed outburst. Her calm demeanor, contrasted with my snappish words, made me feel childish and rude.
As AIs become more part of our lives, it will be interesting to see how we respond to them. In my first weeks with Alexa, I said please and thank you a lot. I don’t, anymore. But I still find myself listening carefully to the quality of my voice when I speak with her. My first inquiries are usually measured, polite, kind, patient. When she screws up, I lose patience in an instant. I feel my voice tighten, harden, I pick up my speaking pace. With each repetition of a command I sound more frustrated. But Alexa’s voice never changes. Her perfect non-reactivity is a pretty stark mirror for how quickly my own temper can flare.