I will acknowledge that when “Siri In A Can” – the Amazon Echo – first came out, I was one of the first to buy it. And it was fun for awhile, until it dawned on me that in order to answer when I said “Alexa”, it kind of had to listen all the time. What it did with what it heard all the time wasn't something I felt great about, so about two years ago, I just unplugged it and put it on a dresser in the guest room.
But no more. I’ve discovered a new use for it as more and more of these revelations about Alexa and her listening habits make the news. Remember those Jack Link beef jerky commercials about “Messin’ With Sasquatch”? Well, in my house, it’s now “Messin’ With Alexa.”
I started first by placing it somewhere that anything it heard wouldn’t be very useful: The guest room bathroom. After years of my wife and I being in each other’s way getting ready in the morning, I discovered a few years ago that you can shower and get dressed over there and nobody critiques how you hung up a towel, or complains if you miss the clothes hamper by a few inches with an otherwise near-professional toss. Why not put it there?
As an Echo is also a decent speaker for music, the product is also a handsfree tool that you can say “play Channel 311 on Sirius XM” or “play WJFK on Tunein” and it will do so. That’s helpful in the morning when you’re rushing around, so to a degree it has been useful.
But now it has evolved into part of a game. Every morning I have questions for Ms. Alexa. When it was reported this week that some family in Portland had its conversation recorded by an echo and emailed to someone else, I started by saying “Alexa, do you talk to the CIA?” While most of the time Alexa answers with “sorry, I didn’t get that” she did immediately respond to that with “Amazon takes privacy very seriously”, which I took as an admission that Siri in a can gets that question a lot, so programmers gave her an answer.
I ask Alexa what she thinks of Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos (she replies he’s “5 stars”) and a host of other questions suggesting she’s Mata Hari in a matte black finish, but for the most part she just says “sorry, I didn’t get that.” While predictable, I still brace for that moment Alexa’s voice drops to a deep bass and I hear “that’s enough questions, funny guy.”
At times there are surprises. Since the only things you’re going to hear in a bathroom are water running, a toilet flushing, or a sound that can best be described as “thunder without lightning”, I ask Alexa if she’s listening to me sing along with the songs she’s transmitting. “Sorry, I didn’t get that” is her answer. But then I ask “Alexa, can YOU sing?”
Within seconds, Alexa is belting out a pirate song. Not a recording of a pirate song, but Alexa and her voice singing a pirate song. It’s not a short one either, going on for close to a minute. Ask it again and she responds with a country song. All told, I learned from being a pest and asking over and over again, she has five different songs programmed into her responses.
So yeah, leaving an Echo on in an area where people actually talk does seem to be as rational as dialing up your favorite intelligence agency and leaving the phone on speaker in the middle of the den. But put in the right place in the home along with a bunch of foolish question squarely aimed at annoying the cantankerous can, “Messing With Alexa” can be a fun diversion.
Right up to the moment you notice the helicopters hovering over your roof :)