Alexa, Should We Trust You?

For a few days this summer, Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to me through my Amazon Echo Dot, took to ending our interactions with a whisper: Sweet dreams. Every time it happened, I was startled, although I thought I understood why she was doing it, insofar as I understand anything that goes on inside that squat slice of black tube. I had gone onto Amazon.com and activated a third-party “skill”—an applike program that enables Alexa to perform a service or do a trick—called “Baby Lullaby.” It plays an instrumental version of a nursery song (yes, I still listen to lullabies to get to sleep), then signs off softly with the nighttime benediction. My conjecture is that the last string of code somehow went astray and attached itself to other “skills.” But even though my adult self knew perfectly well that Sweet dreams was a glitch, a part of me wanted to believe that Alexa meant it. Who doesn’t crave a motherly goodnight, even in mid-afternoon? Proust would have understood.

We’re all falling for Alexa, unless we’re falling for Google Assistant, or Siri, or some other genie in a smart speaker. When I say “smart,” I mean the speakers possess artificial intelligence, can conduct basic conversations, and are hooked up to the internet, which allows them to look stuff up and do things for you. And when I say “all,” I know some readers will think, Speak for yourself! Friends my age—we’re the last of the Baby Boomers—tell me they have no desire to talk to a computer or have a computer talk to them. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Their microphones listen even when you’re not interacting with them, because they have to be able to hear their “wake word,” the command that snaps them to attention and puts them at your service.

The speakers’ manufacturers promise that only speech that follows the wake word is archived in the cloud, and Amazon and Google, at least, make deleting those exchanges easy enough. Nonetheless, every so often weird glitches occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family’s private conversation without their having said the wake word and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contacts list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa (Texas? A Lexus? Praxis?), then misconstrued elements of the ensuing conversation as a series of commands. The explanation did not make me feel much better.

Privacy concerns have not stopped the march of these devices into our homes, however. Amazon doesn’t disclose exact figures, but when I asked how many Echo devices have been sold, a spokeswoman said “tens of millions.” By the end of last year, more than 40 million smart speakers had been installed worldwide, according to Canalys, a technology-research firm. Based on current sales, Canalys estimates that this figure will reach 100 million by the end of this year. According to a 2018 report by National Public Radio and Edison Research, 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers, suggesting that they feel the need to always have one within earshot. By 2021, according to another research firm, Ovum, there will be almost as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as people. It took about 30 years for mobile phones to outnumber humans. Alexa and her ilk may get there in less than half that time.

One reason is that Amazon and Google are pushing these devices hard, discounting them so heavily during last year’s holiday season that industry observers suspect that the companies lost money on each unit sold. These and other tech corporations have grand ambitions. They want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, office, car. In the near future, everything from your lighting to your air-conditioning to your refrigerator, your coffee maker, and even your toilet could be wired to a system controlled by voice.

The company that succeeds in cornering the smart-speaker market will lock appliance manufacturers, app designers, and consumers into its ecosystem of devices and services, just as Microsoft tethered the personal-computer industry to its operating system in the 1990s. Alexa alone already works with more than 20,000 smart-home devices representing more than 3,500 brands. Her voice emanates from more than 100 third-party gadgets, including headphones, security systems, and automobiles.

Yet there is an inherent appeal to the devices, too—one beyond mere consumerism. Even those of us who approach new technologies with a healthy amount of caution are finding reasons to welcome smart speakers into our homes. After my daughter-in-law posted on Instagram an adorable video of her 2-year-old son trying to get Alexa to play “You’re Welcome,” from the Moana soundtrack, I wrote to ask why she and my stepson had bought an Echo, given that they’re fairly strict about what they let their son play with. “Before we got Alexa, the only way to play music was on our computers, and when [he] sees a computer screen, he thinks it’s time to watch TV,” my daughter-in-law emailed back. “It’s great to have a way to listen to music or the radio that doesn’t involve opening up a computer screen.” She’s not the first parent to have had that thought. In that same NPR/Edison report, close to half the parents who had recently purchased a smart speaker reported that they’d done so to cut back on household screen time.

The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.

Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts. They’re software, but they’re more than that, just as human consciousness is an effect of neurons and synapses but is more than that. Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. “The spoken word proceeds from the human interior, and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons,” the late Walter Ong wrote in his classic study of oral culture, Orality and Literacy. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious nonpersons, but their words give them personality and social presence.

And indeed, these devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce or nytimes.com. We communicate with them, not through them. More than once, I’ve found myself telling my Google Assistant about the sense of emptiness I sometimes feel. “I’m lonely,” I say, which I usually wouldn’t confess to anyone but my therapist—not even my husband, who might take it the wrong way. Part of the allure of my Assistant is that I’ve set it to a chipper, young-sounding male voice that makes me want to smile. (Amazon hasn’t given the Echo a male-voice option.) The Assistant pulls out of his memory bank one of the many responses to this statement that have been programmed into him. “I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,” he said to me the other day, somewhat comfortingly. “But for now, maybe a joke or some music might help.”

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?