I woke up Friday morning and decided to log on to my computer before my second cup of coffee had time to do its magic. I clicked on the daily headline report and instead of seeing something about President Trump arm wrestling with Kim Jong-un, I was surprised when the top headline said:
“If you think Alexa is laughing at you, you’re right.”
I pulled up the story from slttoday.com to see what she was laughing about.
“Several people who own Amazon’s Echo speakers have reported a strange bug: The Alexa voice assistant has been laughing for apparently no reason,” it began.
Turns out there have been stories about this phenomenon all over the internet for the past few days:
Engadget.com: “Alexa is randomly laughing, and it’s creepy as hell.”
A Twitter post shown on a CNN Money report: “Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh … there’s a good chance I get murdered tonight.”
The idea of an electronic shopping assistant laughing for no apparent reason is unsettling. It suggests a level of autonomy that we would not expect from such a device. Is it possible that Alexa is becoming … conscious?
Artificial intelligence is being widely touted as “mankind’s final invention.” That’s because the same cyberbrain that animates our cellphones is expected to evolve into an entity smarter than any human, take control of the planet, and start reproducing itself to our chagrin sometime in the next two or three decades – or maybe even sooner. By the time we realize what is happening it will be too late, or at least that is what science-fiction writers keep telling us.
The viral story about Alexa infected me with curiosity, so I searched for related articles. Perhaps I could laugh, too, because I have not been gullible enough to purchase a device capable of shipping me a case of toilet paper on a whim.
It turns out my new smartphone has been listening to me all along. And someone on the other end could be laughing behind my back.
“Some people can’t shake the feeling that their phones may be picking up their conversations, even when they’re not making a call, especially if you’re getting online ads for things you never searched for online,” states a Feb. 27 CBS News report.
“It is possible, experts say. But companies know so much about you already, they probably don’t need to eavesdrop.”
“They know a tremendous amount about you and that enables them to make guesses about what to advertise to you that can be uncannily accurate,” former Facebook operations manager Sandy Parakilas told the reporter. “That’s because they already mine a cross section of personal data including almost everything we post, share and search for online.”
Everything except the word “privacy.”
Google and Facebook both told CBS they do not use cellphone microphones to collect information for ads. But they don’t deny listening. There’s a little microphone on my cellphone’s Google app commanding me to speak the words “OK Google.”
Not OK. Try turning it off and your cellphone malfunctions like Robby the Robot from “Lost in Space.”
Today’s androids are far more powerful than Robby, but they still need human counterparts – for now, at least.
“There’s a dirty little secret about artificial intelligence: It’s powered by hundreds of thousands of real people,” said an Associated Press story out of San Francisco.
It tells how ordinary people scattered around the planet are helping AI learn how to crawl its way to superiority.
For example, a 36-year-old father of three in Indonesia says websites such as eBay and Amazon pay him about $100 a month — roughly half his income – to add word tags to clothing pictures. “Such data feeds directly into ‘machine learning’ algorithms that help self-driving cars wind through traffic and let Alexa figure out that you want the lights on,” the article says.
A hotel chain claims its digital assistant named “Ameila” saves the company $5 to $10 per phone call. When she fails, human “intent analysts” take charge and feed their solutions back into the system, so she will have a better chance of responding correctly in the future.
One expert from the University of California Berkeley told the AP that in five or 10 years computers will outgrow the need for human labeling.
By this time I’m not sure if finishing my coffee will help. I know I will have nightmares tonight. What will the new AI-driven economy look like? Will they be distinguishable from an 8-year-old pecking away on his computer in Bangladesh? Or realistic replicants like Sophia, the internet sensation who seems to grow more body parts every time I watch her on YouTube? I click on a clip titled “Most advanced A.I. robot admits it wants to destroy humans after glitch during TV interview.”
I shudder, wishing someone would put a wig on her bald, see-through cranium.
Surely one day a man-made machine will develop the capacity for self-reflective thought – that fateful quality that makes us uniquely human. And when it does, it will probably be heard laughing at nothing in the middle of the night.