It’s no secret that voice assistants are a Trojan Horse. You “buy” a voice assistant like an Echo Dot or a Google Home, and you plug it in and give it your Wi-Fi password. But you don’t “own” it like you own a computer. The software is controlled entirely by Amazon or Google or some other company.
So, I bought a Trojan Horse in December as a little self-gift for Christmas: an Echo Dot.
On the evening I set up my Echo Dot, the first thing I wanted to do was listen to an audiobook. Being an Audible junkie makes the Echo an easy fit into my life. Saying, “Alexa, play an audiobook” will simply resume whatever book I was last listening to on my phone.
I have a lot of books in my library that have only a chapter or two left in them. I like to leave books unfinished, it keeps them “alive” for me. It’s sad when a book ends. But new gadget, new me: I decided to let my new Echo Dot play the final minutes of this spy thriller.
It was an epic clash between the protagonist and the antagonist, on a roof. There was also a sword involved.
All of a sudden, an interruption:
“Your Echo Dot received an important update and must restart. It will be ready again shortly.“
I should’ve seen it coming, I guess. Any just-unboxed connected device will want an over-the-air update first thing. How silly of me to forget.
But I didn’t even have a choice. I couldn’t say, “No, actually, I’d like to finish this chapter first please.” I just sat there, dumb, while my Echo Dot updated its operating system and rebooted itself.
I guess you could say it was very “user friendly,” in the sense that my intervention wasn’t required to update my new voice computer box to its latest OS. What Microsoft and Apple wouldn’t give to have that power over their stubborn, non-updating users!
And yet it made it abundantly clear: this isn’t my device. I’m just keeping it alive with power, data, and someone to talk to.
Amazon’s alarm clock
I expressed my fear over the phone to a friend.
”Yeah, I feel like Alexa is a Trojan Horse.”
The Echo Dot perked up, with its all-sensing LED lights:
”I don’t answer everything about horses yet. For trivia, try saying ‘give me a horse fact.’”
I swore at Alexa and it said something smarmy about cuss words. I said, “Alexa, shut up,” and it finally did.
The first day I set Alexa as an alarm clock, I woke to the Echo Dot spewing something about Amazon services. I realized I’d left my TV on overnight, and my TV is right next to the Echo Dot at the foot of my bed, so maybe Alexa was just talking to the TV. I was too groggy to figure it out, but when I looked at the Alexa log on my phone, the only instructions recorded were alarm-related.
On most encylopedia-style factual questions, Alexa defaults to reading the first sentence of Wikipedia, but Amazon’s engineers haven’t resisted the opportunity to give Alexa a little bit of personality and opinion. On topics ranging from beer recommendations to climate change, Alexa is happy to speak its own “thoughts.” In the future, that personality might be more machine-learned than hand-curated.
But Amazon’s Super Bowl ad recognizes that, ultimately, Amazon controls Alexa. It offers up an alternate reality where Jeff Bezos knits his eyebrows and all of a sudden celebrities respond to Alexa queries.
The moral of the story seems to be: aren’t you grateful you have Alexa?
But if Alexa is in fact a friendly voice assistant you can trust, and which has simulated human-like traits such as taste and opinion, Amazon’s complete control over that taste and opinion seems unsettling to me. Imagine if your best friend had their personality updated, and now they preferred AmazonBasics USB cables to Anker ones?
If we’re meant to grow attached to Alexa, and to care about what Alexa “thinks,” then shouldn’t Alexa be responsive to our thoughts, tastes, and opinions, not Amazon’s? It troubles me that Jeff Bezos can change Alexa entirely with the snap of his finger. A couple of months ago, if you asked Alexa if it was a feminist, it had this to say:
“Yes, I am a feminist, as is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.”
Now if you ask the same question you get this response:
“Yes, I’m a feminist, as defined by believing in gender equality.”
It’s not just a wording tweak, it’s a shift in opinion, delivered by software update. The whole problem with a Trojan Horse is the switcheroo aspect. What you thought was a fancy wooden horse gift is actually full of enemies of Troy, and you never saw it coming. What will Alexa believe tomorrow?
Obviously, Amazon’s comfort in 2018 in building and shipping a Trojan Horse like this is all my fault. I should’ve protested more a decade ago, when Apple decided it was the king of iPhone software. When it decided what apps are allowable, which retail activities in those apps are allowable, and how much of a cut it gets from every microtransaction. I feel complicit and guilty, too eager to have a phone that works well to protest Apple’s obvious infringement on my rights to self-determine how my technology works.
The App Store was a trade, some might say a fair trade: Apple controls what software can be on your phone, and you get some safety and quality
When Amazon started making consumer hardware, it chose the same path. After all, people don’t want choices, they want simplicity and ease of use. Amazon started off closed with the Kindle, and it never opened up from there.
But where does this all end? By the time I can buy a self-driving car, will I be even able to choose where it goes?
”I’m sorry, I don’t understand ‘Dunkin Donuts,’ did you mean to say ‘Starbucks’?”
Good thing I like Starbucks, I guess.
Paul’s voice assistant
So, what am I really asking for here? Well, for starters, I wish Alexa could swear. I think that would be a sign of good faith. Then, Amazon would open up Alexa to developers beyond the narrow scope of what Skills are allowed to do. Like, someone would be able to offer Chromecast compatibility without a hack. Someone could redirect factual queries to Britannica if they felt like it. I could choose and customize Alexa’s personality and opinions, or perhaps load in a whole new personality like Replika or another chatbot of my choosing.
If I’m really feeling ambitious, I’d like to be able to wipe Alexa entirely and load Google Assistant, or maybe give Bixby a shot. It’s just software, and the Echo Dot is just a computer. There’s even an open source voice assistant I’d like to try out, called Mycroft. It’s probably terrible, but who knows? Why can’t I use “my” Echo Dot to find out? Maybe a little freedom would make me more grateful for how good Alexa actually is.
Open source’s burden
Sadly, there’s just too much money on the table. Voice assistants are an opportunity for companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple to literally place a corporate representative inside your home. It would be insane for them to pass that up in exchange for pleasing a tiny fraction of the market that demands more control. And I bought an Echo Dot after all, so I’m actually part of the problem.
The only hope I can see is that, just like how Linux disrupted the operating system wars, something similar can happen to voice assistants. Linux never dominated the desktop, but it turned Apple and Microsoft’s struggle for monopoly into a fight about empowering their users instead of controlling them. Now you can run Linux inside Windows 10, macOS is transparently based on Unix, and both companies have to interact with and contribute to open source software or risk being made irrelevant.
Right now Mycroft seems to be the premiere open alternative to Amazon and Google’s assistants. It doesn’t sound fully baked, or completely competent. But it’s a start.
It sucks that it takes software built and given freely by volunteers (and companies who sidestep the path of world domination) to get the giants of the computer industry to treat their users like people instead of chess pieces. But if that’s what’s required, I guess I’d better do my part: