Does Alexa know what evils lurks in the hearts of men?

Does Alexa know what evils lurks in the hearts of men?

It has been said that, “Laughter is the best medicine”…but like many medicines, it can also be a poison.

A dismissive laugh can “poison” a relationship, for example.

There is one particular relationship where laughter has been getting a lot of negative coverage recently, and it’s significant to readers of this blog.

It’s the relationship between us humans and our

Echo devices (at AmazonSmile*)

Amazon reportedly confirmed yesterday that Echo devices (which host Alexa) have been spontaneously laughing. Those reports describe the laugh as “creepy”, and happening at odd times, sometimes apparently in response to a question, but sometimes with no prompting at all…even in the middle of the night.

When I first heard about this, I asked one of our devices to laugh, and it gave a very demure “Tee hee”. I didn’t keep asking to see if I’d get different laughs, which is possible, but it wasn’t creepy.

I did, though, find various YouTube videos where you can hear it, including this

YouTube compilation

This raises all sorts of interesting points, even though Amazon is reportedly working to fix it.

A first one: how did they capture the video if it was spontaneous? You can ask Alexa to “Say that again”.

Second, why is it happening?

This

Mashable article by Brian Kroeber

says that Amazon says Alexa was thinking it heard the phrase said, “Alexa, laugh”.

I have to say, from what I’ve heard described of the triggering incidents, that seems…unlikely. Did people mutter something like that in their sleep? If you are asking Alexa to turn on the light, how likely is it going to be that it gets close to that? Maybe, “Alexa bath,” I suppose.

Then, why a creepy laugh at all?

I think part of that is the lack of context. Laughing without apparent reason is often creepy. Imagine being on an elevator, and somebody between floors just lets out with a full-throated laugh. I think most people would be taken aback, at the least.

A laugh can also be an “evil laugh”…I’ll explain that shortly. I’m reminded, though, of the opening of the old The Shadow radio show: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” That statement is punctuated with creepy laughter (different with different actors). As another example, think of Vincent Price’s laugh in Michael Jackson’s Thriller…

What is laughter? What does it signify?

I’ve trained a lot of trainers, and part of what I’ll address is the use of humor. I do think I’ve explained this on this blog again, but it’s worth doing in this context.

Laughter is a signal that there is apparent danger, but no real danger. That danger can be social, of course.

If someone laughs and there is no apparent danger, that unnerves people around them…they look for the apparent danger, in part because they may need to assess it themselves.

A more painful laugh can be one which says that the danger you perceive as being real is being dismissed by the laughter. Picture being in a group of people, and you bring up a concern of yours: “Don’t you think we are under-dressed for the party?” If someone laughs at that idea, they are saying your concern isn’t legitimate.

It’s why someone can usually make a joke about a stereotype about their own group when they are in that group…the group understands that the person doesn’t really mean it. Let’s say that the stereotype was…that you were part of a group which apologizes a lot. Within the group, you could probably say, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we apologize too much…sorry.” If someone outside of the group made that same joke, it could be taken seriously.

You can also make a joke about yourself…as a trainer, I can be seen as someone who talks a lot. I’ve made this joke to my students: “Actually, I was once treated for a sunburned tongue.” 😉

When I talked to trainers about establishing rapport and credibility, I suggested they may want to make a joke about something obvious about themselves that might be a vulnerability during the introduction. If they were afraid of being perceived as being too young to know the subject, make a joke about that: “I know I might seem young to know this topic, but I guarantee you I’ve done my homework…if I didn’t, my Mom wouldn’t let me play Minecraft.” I always make a reference to “…geeks like me”, to cover that concern that I’ll be too geeky (in a computer class).

This is all rule of thumb, but I find it works well. Humor can be a great tuning mechanism, to get people seeing things from the same place you are…this idea of apparent but false danger is quite complex. However, making a joke about something that might be sensitive to some people is a risk. You might think that no one seriously thinks the Earth is flat…but if you make a joke about that and you happen to have a flat-Earther in your audience, you are in trouble. What did you gain from the joke? That’s the trade-off…risks and benefits.

Well, that was a bit of a rabbit trail, but I did want to explain why laughter could be creepy coming from Alexa…and it was fun for me to explain it! 😉

I’d say more, but I think I’ll let Alexa have the last laugh…

What do you think? Has your Alexa laughed spontaneously? If so, did it bother you…and can you explain why? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.


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8 Responses to “Does Alexa know what evils lurks in the hearts of men?”

  1. Tom Semple Says:

    I’m skeptical about Alexa laughter. It is easy enough to pair a Bluetooth device, or have a phone call and have the person on the other end laugh evilly and somewhat mechanically.

  2. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I’ve noticed quite a few times lately that people don’t refer to their devices as “Echo” or “Dot” anymore; they call them Alexa. Is Alexa becoming sentient? Even if you’re not paranoid, there’s a tendency to react to unexplained laughter as a feeling that you are the one being laughed at.
    I’m still among those who think that having an Amazon listening ear in my house is creepy enough as it is. If I did have one and it suddenly started laughing for no apparent reason, it would be on its way back to Amazon! If it’s true that AI is the ultimate form of evolution, then having Alexa start laughing at us is certainly an ominous sign.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      I think the change to referring to “Alexa” came when we started having Alexa on devices other than the original Echo “tower”. It was easy to think of the Echo (which was the name of the object we bought) and “Alexa” were one and the same when there was only one. However, when we started having Alexa (with a memory about us) accessible from different devices, we lost that sense of corporeality. We interacted with the incorporeal Alexa, and the Echo became just the “container”.

      It’s interesting to think of of it as Alexa laughing “at us”. I think my first thought would have been what third element joke Alexa was getting that I didn’t get…not that it was about me, but it was about something I didn’t understand. I suspect that’s because of my desire to understand everything, and I’d be more likely to be affected by that than by a negative opinion of me.

      • Tom Semple Says:

        It is not just Amazon’s devices, there are other ‘powered by Alexa’ devices now (Sonos etc.). ‘Echo’ is reserved for Amazon’s own Devices.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Tom!

        Absolutely true (and Alexa has been on non-Amazon devices for some time), but I do think our sense of Alexa being distinct from the Echo began when it expanded beyond the Echo device. I’d have to go back and look, but I think that was to other Amazon devices before it was to non-Amazon devices…not positive, though.

  3. Zebras Says:

    We were bummed that ours didn’t laugh. We felt left out, By the time we heard the story, we couldn’t even get our “Alexa” to laugh on command.

    The laugh they played on the news sounded like Roseanne Barr. Maybe because I’ve seen commercials for the return of her show one too many times.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      I’m with you on feeling left out! I would have liked to have heard it…but not when I was asleep. 😉

      Try, “Alexa, laugh for me”. They changed it from, “Alexa, laugh”, because they thought that was part of what was causing false triggers…too simple a communication.

  4. Juliana Antenucci Says:

    Does Alexa know what evils lurks in the hearts of men? | I Love My Kindle

    […]First, understand this: There can be properly over 1 million phone readings finished in 2012 alone, and up to seventy five% of these clients and callers will probably be folks who have spoken to the same psychic or medium before.[…]

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