Alexa laughs

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Now that speech technology is good enough that voice interaction with devices is becoming widespread and routine, success has created a new problem: How should a device tell when to attend to ambient sounds and try to interpret them as questions or commands?

One solution is to require a mouse click or a finger press to start things off — but this can degrade the whole "ever-attentive servant" experience. So increasingly such systems rely on a key phrase like "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" or "Alexa". But this solution brings up other problems, since users don't like the idea of their entire life's soundtrack streaming to Apple or Google or Amazon. And anyhow, streaming everything to the Mother Ship might strain battery life and network bandwidth for some devices. The answer: Create simple, low-power device-local programs that do nothing but monitor ambient audio for the relevant magic phrase.

Problem: these programs aren't yet very good. Result: lots of false positives. Mostly the false positives are relatively benign — see e.g. "Annals of helpful surveillance", 5/9/2017. But recently, many people have been creeped out by Alexa laughing at them, apparently for no reason:

Or again:

According to The Verge (Shannon Liao, "Amazon has a fix for Alexa’s creepy laughs", 3/7/2018):

Over the past few days, users with Alexa-enabled devices have reported hearing strange, unprompted laughter. Amazon responded to the creepiness today in a statement to The Verge, saying, “We’re aware of this and working to fix it.”

Later on in the day, Amazon said its planned fix will involve disabling the phrase, “Alexa, laugh,” and changing the command to “Alexa, can you laugh?” The company says the latter phrase is “less likely to have false positives,” or in other words the Alexa software is likely to mistake common words and phrases that sound similar to the one that makes Alexa start laughing. “We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh,’ followed by laughter,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

In other words, Alexa will require a more complex command to trigger laughter, and will also add some words before the laugh to make it clearer that the system thinks it's responding to a command, not just chuckling smugly to itself.

Apparently recognition of the current two-word phrase "Alexa laugh" can be triggered by quasi-random bits of conversation — or even by common environmental sounds, ubiquitous in most modern living spaces, that humans don't register as speech at all. A refrigerator compressor turning on, a truck passing on the street outside, a cough, a breath, the wind, …

And sometimes other unprompted search results can be more unsettling than information about the benefits of naps:

 



21 Comments

  1. 번하드 said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    Anyone remember the 1990s? http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/20/36#subj1

  2. Ed M said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    Now, in response to "Alexa, can you laugh", I get "Sure, I can laugh. Tee Hee"

    She's lost the belly laugh and acquired what sounds like a cartoonish laugh. Who actually laughs "tee hee" outside the comic strips?

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

    The part that has me baffled is why anyone at Amazon thought it would be a good idea to have Alexa laugh on command in the first place. That's pretty creepy already.

  4. Stuart Luppescu said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

    The other day, I was speaking to my wife in Japanese when my Google Home turned on and said something like, "Here is a list of hardware stores in the neighborhood", or something like that. I have no idea where it came from.

  5. James Fulford said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

    Here’s a story from THE COLONELS, by W. E. B Griffin, a novel about Special Forces. At a graduation ceremony, where everybody is about to receive their new Green Berets, the Colonel in charge of the school does something—on purpose—which makes the troops laugh.

    Quote:

    Then Colonel Mac looked at the assembled hatless troops. “I didn't give any command to laugh,” he said. “The only time you get to laugh is when I give the command “ Prepare to laugh—laugh!”

    The troops were divided between those who tried to stop laughing and those who came close to hysterics.

  6. Rube said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick: part of the fun of Alexa is seeing what she does when you make odd requests of her. If you have fun with her, you remember that she's around and use her to buy stuff. A huge amount of what my family says to her is pretty stupid, and I'm pretty sure I would have gotten around to seeing if she could laugh.

  7. Rube said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

    Also, I swear to God that the other day when I was leaving for work, our Amazon Fire Stick turned itself on. If you told me that Alexa wanted to watch TV, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand.

  8. Yuval said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

    "two-syllable"?

    [(myl) OK, two-word…]

  9. Robert said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

    If only the KGB knew they could get people to voluntarily bug their own homes.

  10. D.O. said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

    What happens when you say "Alexa, get lost"?

  11. Rube said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

    @D.O. Tried it, and she said “That’s not very nice to say.”

  12. Norman Smith said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 11:06 pm

    So ambient noises, like traffic, refrigerators, and so on, can cause Alexa to do things like laugh. It makes me wonder whether they can cause Alexa (or her sisters from Apple, etc.) to do worse things like order a dozen large pizzas or even much worse. I am beginning to think I have an idea for a murder mystery involving a victim, a backfiring car, a noisy exhaust fan, asthmatic breathing, and digestive problems. "I say, Holmes, what type of noises could have caused Alexa to murder Lord Luckless in his sleep?" "Alimentary, my dear Watson!"

  13. tangent said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 11:26 pm

    Has anyone yet done adversarial audio examples targeted to trigger these devices?

  14. D.O. said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:24 am

    Rube, thank you. So it does not get lost, that is, doesn't turn off.

  15. MattF said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    It says "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."

  16. James Wimberley said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    The problem is likely temporary. ARM have just announced a programme of low-cost AI processor designs, for inclusion in SOCs for consumer devices of all sorts. They expect to release specific designs later this year. We can expect local AI to improve very quickly.

  17. KeithB said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    Robert:
    I was thinking the same thing. I hope he was using "confidential" in an informal way. I have been at places where they won't allow key fobs because of security risks. Alexa would be right out.

  18. Stephen Hart said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

    Robert said, "If only the KGB knew they could get people to voluntarily bug their own homes."
    What makes you think they didn't know?

    I was having a conversation last year and knelt down to unload our front-loading clothes washer (thereby inadvertently pressing the home button on the iPhone in my jeans pocket). Continuing the conversation, I said "I think we will find that Facebook and Twitter are horribly corrosive to society." Siri responded "Perhaps not."
    Obviously, I have the last laugh.

    And: https://xkcd.com/1807/

  19. Kate Gladstone said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 6:52 am

    Re: “Who actually laughs ‘tee hee’ outside the comic strips?”

    At least one character in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”:

    “ ‘Tehee!’ quod she, and clapte the wyndow to,“

    Retrieved from:
    http://www.librarius.com/canttran/milltale/milltale615-635.htm

  20. Lukas said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    "The part that has me baffled is why anyone at Amazon thought it would be a good idea to have Alexa laugh on command in the first place. That's pretty creepy already."

    Presumably, Amazon is looking at popular commands Alexa doesn't have a response for, and is adding scripted reactions to them. This might be one of these.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

    Am I the only one to find it extremely disturbing that some people refer to Alexa (and Siri, in another thread) as "she" ?

    [(myl) Is this more disturbing to you than the fact that people use animate pronouns to refer to fictional characters?]

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