I am Crapping My Pants in Fear About Amazon's Alexa
Why We are Not Nearly Paranoid Enough About Digital Voice Assistants and Should Be Very Afraid
Author's preface. This parody article was published back in 2019. Obviously that makes a tech focused piece like this one very much dated. I still think it holds up OK and is pretty damn funny. You really have to read the original upon which it is based (linked below) to get the full effect.
I am not sure if anybody else has noticed, but while we were all sleeping or something Amazon rolled out a new product that may only be phase I of a diabolical plot to control everything we see, hear, and read. Like Orwell’s telescreen with its “Big Brother is watching” message, Amazon’s Alexa sits in our kitchens or living rooms bringing us messages about what products to buy or food to eat. Of course you have to ask it first, and it usually doesn’t hear you the first three or four times you say anything, or it thinks it hears you and does something even though you didn’t say anything. Someday, however, it might be able to recognize human speech, at which point who knows what else it might be capable of. Currently that mostly consists of turning appliances on and off and being an alarm clock. While it is not very good at those tasks either, in the future it might be able to set an alarm which tells it at what time to turn certain appliances on. From there, it is only a hop skip and a jump to complete control of your kitchen, then your house, then your neighborhood and then the world.
Amazon is well positioned to be a Big Brother for the modern age with its 613,000 employees and $232.89 billion in annual sales revenue. These numbers put it at nation-state scale, raising concerns about a company with that much power listening in on our private conversations. Even though it is terrible at this someday it might be a little bit better and then we could all really be hosed. Recently we learned that Amazon was employing its hordes of warehouse wage slaves (soon to be conscripts to the Amazon stormtrooper brigades no doubt) to transcribe all of the secret recordings Alexa has been making in our very own homes. They claim to have only annotated “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.” Could they have chosen a more obvious lie. The shittiness of the customer experience and the overall terribleness of Alexa’s voice recognition makes it clear they have done no such work.
Then they tried to deflect the question by suggesting that those transcribed conversations are not connected to any personally identifiable information.
Amazon has probably heard and transcribed some pretty bizarre and very personal conversations. So what? Amazon isn’t going to do anything about what it hears. Amazon not do anything. Amazon not hear anything. Amazon not see anything. Amazon not person. Amazon company. Why does Amazon suggest it is an entity capable of doing things when it is actually a collection of tens of thousands of individuals only a few of whom have any actual power to make decisions that matter?
As that guy in the movie Running Man starring Arnold Schwarzenegger says “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” We all know Amazon’s interest in what you’re saying is directly proportional to how what you say relates to the activities it finds the most profitable. Specifically their shopping, music, and growing collection of smart devices. They claim Alexa has to “listen” all the time to connect those services to your needs. Given how poorly Alexa performs at actually connecting you to those services you might think that it a good thing it’s always listening. After all if it keeps trying to listen maybe it will eventually figure out how. Then your dreams of asking a small black inanimate disc in your living room to order three cases of Depends from Amazon will finally come true. No longer will you have to drag your lazy ass all the way down to the CVS on 4th and Broad and go through that whole embarrassing rigmarole at checkout. The one where the checkout counter girl is obviously asking herself why some 40 something year old dude is buying three cases of Depends undergarments. Someday urinary incontinence will be talked about openly and without shame you think to yourself. Then I won’t have to hide in the shadows anymore. It’s a nice dream alright, but get over it because it ain’t gonna happen.
Now Amazon will tell you that no voice system can improve without a combination of algorithmic machine learning and human analysis. Once again another bald faced lie as even the slowest of nimrods know that machines can’t learn. That in fact the term machine learning consists of two words that when combined in that order result in a logical contradiction. That if machines could learn they would no longer be machines. I mean come on Amazon, everybody knows that. Don’t they?
I don’t know about you but for me an always-watching and listening system will always smack too much of Big Brother, even if it’s driven by a dispassionate algorithm. Stop complaining and enjoy the fact that you can talk to a computer. Or complain about the fact that you can’t talk to your kids. Stupid ex and stupid judge with their stupid restraining orders.
Is our freedom worth this price? Join me in telling Amazon we don’t want them hearing what we say at the dinner table, turn off the mic or throw away your Echo. Complain loudly and constantly to anyone who will listen and to those who won’t listen punch them in the face and tell them to wake the fuck up. Amazon is coming for your friends. They are coming for your jobs. They will take your family and then your freedoms. You should be afraid, very, very, very afraid.