Last week, Amazon Alexa users began reporting that their Echo devices were laughing in a very creepy way on their own. Sometimes, people reported, they’d be just sitting there in silence before, unprompted, Alexa began to laugh without any additional comment. Others said they had just asked Alexa to turn off the lights, only to be met with an abnormal chortle.
Why it’s a problem
First of all, it’s creepy. I mean, listen to this laugh:
— CaptHandlebar (@CaptHandlebar) February 23, 2018
More importantly though, it shows flaws in the design. It turns out that humor is hard to program into artificial intelligences. The tech world has been consumed with making chatbots that feel more like our human friends rather than brands run by corporate AIs.
The problem is that, while chatbots can understand our spoken words with amazing accuracy, they still can’t grasp the subtleties of human-to-human interaction. So big companies like Amazon have invested a great deal of time and energy into building humor and levity into Alexa with the goal of making this always-on technology feel relatable like a friend.
How we fix it
So, on the more immediate front, Amazon has pushed a fix for Echo devices. According to The Verge,
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.
While iterative design will help with natural language processing as we move into the future, the more pressing issue is that this is a stop gap fix that doesn’t address the underlying problem.
The issue is that we keep trying to make these bots into friends instead of computers. Humor is a difficult skill to handle (much less master) in everyday human interactions. There are things like body language, tone, context, and history to consider. When your method of communication relies on standardized responses to queries based on a database, the subtleties of humor aren’t going to be evident.
Stop designing friends and assistants. Make your bot the best computer it can be.