The Consequences of Giving a Machine a Human Name
Real lives get affected.
Amazon first introduced its smart speaker device in 2014 and decided that the wake word should be Alexa, an already popular human name.
The Amazon developers went with the name because of the hard consonant X which makes it distinct and also because it is reminiscent of the Library of Alexandria (one of the largest libraries in the ancient world located in Alexandria, Egypt). Unfortunately, they didn’t account for the effect using a human name would have on actual humans.
Or didn’t they?
I’ve thought about it and I find it hard to believe no one on the research team for the name thought about what it might do to people who already use it. One of the parents in this BBC article pointed out that there was not enough ethical research into using Alexa as a name. I’m inclined to believe in the statement.
Amazon has a way of pissing people off with the things they do and honestly, sometimes, the rage is justified. Why would you assign a human name to a robot? I think that in itself is a huge ethical question that would take a real ethics committee a long time to dissect. What are you telling the world? That you intend to blur the line between real and artificial? The more I think about it, the more questions I have.
The thing is that at the surface level, it might not seem like a big deal, especially if you are not directly affected by it. But try and think about the question some more. Of all the names in the world, why a popular human name? Alexa has the same number of syllables as Amazon. The z in Amazon is also a hard syllable. Let’s even throw in “echo”, the name of the device. It’s also a clean and simple name.
I had to read some articles while looking into the topic and reading the accounts of parents of children named Alexa took me back to when I was younger and unable to deal with any form of mockery. My initials are O.K. I remember the first time I lost a book in our student hall and the senior student that found it kept shouting “Who is OK?” “Are you OK?” and everyone was laughing about it. Except for me obviously, I was fighting back tears. It may seem benign and even hilarious in hindsight, but as an 11-year old, I couldn’t understand why my initials were a source of a joke. Now imagine your name being equated to a machine that is used to answer people’s requests.
I’m picturing myself shouting “Alexa” over the loud music I’m playing to ask her to change the music. I don’t even need to say please. Now imagine some dimwit (there’s always some dimwit) who thinks they are funny, shouting a very unintelligent command at someone named Alexa because they think it’s going to be hilarious. No, it’s not, it’s disrespectful.
And as if to make matters worse, Alexa is a female name. You don’t even need to imagine how bad it gets, because it does. Some men make sexual requests to women they have never met because they think it’s- I don’t even know what they think because it oozes 100 shades of foolishness.
Lauren Johnson, a mother to a child named Alexa wrote a letter to Amazon in 2019, urging them to change the wake-up name for the device. She wrote a follow-up letter the following year, this time directed to Jeff Bezos. The response to the issue from Amazon has been that users can change the wake word.
The response basically means that the onus is on us the consumers to make the change, not the company that made the conscious decision to create the problem.
Wouldn’t it be better to get a proper ethics committee to look into the issue and come up with a proper solution? Most people don’t change default settings!
The bottom line is that kids are getting bullied and women harassed over something they have no control over. The worst part is that they and their family will most likely have to fight this battle alone because it’s not something most people would invest their time in. I’m sure Amazon knows this and is taking full advantage of our limited fucks-to-give availability. We need to sit up and stop letting tech giants ruin people’s lives. It isn’t affecting you directly yet, but sooner or later, they just might come for you.