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No, I don’t want to have long conversations with Alexa

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Amazon’s Alexa is great for many things. I love walking through my door saying “Alexa, turn on all lights.” I like asking Alexa for the weather and telling it to play music. I really appreciate how Amazon is constantly improving its capabilities with new skills.

But what I don’t want is to have any kind of extended conversation with Alexa. I’m the boss and Alexa’s my assistant. I’m sorry, but there’s no room anything deeper in this relationship. 

This rant is inspired by a Carnegie Mellon University project in which a team of students is trying to make Alexa more chatty.

The 11-member Team Tartan is one of eight from around the world who have been awarded $250,000 to compete in the Alexa Prize Challenge.

These teams are to “create socialbots that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, and fashion.”

The specific goal is to make Alexa hold a conversation for 20 minutes, which if you stop and think about it is a very long time to be talking with a digital assistant. Most queries with Alexa (or any digital assistant such as Siri or Google Assistant) last seconds, not the span of a Seinfeld episode.

KDKA, a CBS Pittsburgh local news division, which interviewed the Tartan team, posed a good question: Do Alexa users even want to have conversations with it?

One Alexa user they spoke to said it’d depend on the technology, specifically on the accuracy of Alexa’s ability to hear your words. 

But I’m not convinced anyone really does want this. I was one of the first ever to use an Echo with Alexa voice controls and I’ve been using it daily for over three years. Not once have I wanted to have a more engaging conversation with it.

I also live alone no roommates and no pets (not even a fish) and I admit it does get lonely sometimes, but I still never feel the urge to chitchat with Alexa.

As digital assistants get smarter, it’s natural some people might want to converse with them for more than just the occasional “what’s the weather?” and “who’s leading the Eastern Conference playoffs in the NBA?” 

The Google Assistant is the best digital assistant there is because it understands context. If you ask it one thing, and then another, it understands that they’re probably related.

But this whole “digital assistants being our friends” reminded reminded of that one episode of Mr. Robot where FBI agent Dominique DiPierro lays in bed talking to Alexa. As she skulks under her sheets talking to what is essentially a robot, she realizes she has no friends and no relationships. You can see an illustrated reenactment of the entire scene below:

“Alexa, wake me up at um…,” Dom tells Alexa.

“Sorry, I didn’t understand the question you were asking,” Alexa replies.

“Because I wasn’t asking a question you dumb bitch,” retorts Dom.

Alexa has no answer to this. Their conversation continues with an increasingly depressed Dom asking it “Are we friends?” This continues for a few more questions with her asking Alexa’s favorite color, the color of its eyes, and whether or not it loves her.

This. Is. All. So. Depressing.

It makes you realize that despite technology making life more convenient, it’s also made us all much more lonely. A conversation with Alexa might be a short-term cure for loneliness, but it won’t dig you out of your darkness over time. For that, nothing will ever be as good as social interactions with humans.

No matter how smart digital assistants get, they can never replace real exchanges between friends and family. They just can’t because at the end of the day, they’re pre-programmed to say and respond to a set of commands. 

Even if machine learning helps expand that, the vessels used to deliver digital assistants an Echo, HomePod, smartphone, or whatever are still machines incapable of true emotions. They know no sympathy or empathy. They’ll leave you feeling just as empty as before your phony conversation started.

Even talking to a dog or cat is more valuable than a digital assistant. Though they can’t speak back in human language, they still emote with facial expressions and body language. Alexa can’t do either of those things.

When you’re on your death bed, you’ll remember the conversations you had with those closest to you. Who’ll remember the lame chit-chat you had with Alexa? Not me. 

Alexa won’t sit in the park with me on a nice summer day. Alexa won’t go to the bar and be my shoulder to lean on when life is keeps kicking my ass. 

So no, I don’t need or want to have any convo with digital assistants. Turn on my lights, play my music, and read me the news. That’s all I need from them. But long, fake convos? No thanks. Let’s remember we’re humans. Go out and make friends in the real world. Let’s stop living like introverted hermits hiding behind our tech. 

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