3/10/17

Why Amazon’s Alexa Can’t Tell You If It’s Connected To The CIA

Is your Amazon Echo device — and its virtual assistant Alexa — somehow connected to the CIA? A video of one Echo refusing to answer that question both amused and alarmed (but mostly amused) viewers, but Amazon is now chalking it up to a glitch that has since been fixed.

You may have seen the video circulating in the past few days; the original has been taken down but the AV Club still has a copy hosted if you want to watch.

But the recording is only 44 seconds long, and very straightforward. A woman, off-camera, asks Amazon’s Alexa — via an Echo Dot — if it will lie to her. Alexa responds in the negative — “I’m not always right, but I would never intentionally lie.” Then she asks Alexa to define the CIA for her, which Alexa does. Then it gets suspicious:

Speaker: “Alexa, are you connected to the CIA?”
Echo: [light blinks briefly, unit goes silent]

In the name of science, a Consumerist family member was persuaded to sit and talk with their Amazon FireTV which, unlike the Echo or Echo Dot, can also give a readout of what it’s “thinking.”

When Alexa was asked, “Are you connected to the CIA?” it returned, “Your search did not match anything in our catalog,” as shown here:

Our intrepid device questioner also tried phrasing the question differently, and asking about different agencies, leading to this conversation:

Speaker: “Alexa, Are you connected to the internet?”
FireTV: “Yes, I am connected to the internet.”
Speaker: “Are you connected to the FBI?”
FireTV: “I’m sorry. I’m having trouble… please try again in a little while.”
Speaker: “What is the FBI?”
FireTV: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the domestic intelligence and security service of the United States.”
Speaker: “Are you connected to the FBI?”
FireTV: “I’m sorry. I’m having trouble… please try again in a little while.”

When the question was phrased differently, however — as, “Are you sending data to” or, “Are you communicating with the FBI,” Alexa returns, “I wasn’t able to understand the question I heard,” which is its regular response when it can’t parse you into something it “understands.”

It sounds like a case of suspiciously selective hearing, amusing and worrying all at the same time. What it is, though, is basically a glitch: Alexa isn’t a plain text parser like the 30-year-old games of the Zork era, but it’s not an independent intelligence, either. It’s pretty good at context, for a piece of software, but can’t necessarily take a nuanced question — like the many different meanings of “connected” an English-speaking human might use — and turn them into a valid response if it hasn’t been taught to.

We asked Amazon about it, and a representative for the company told us, “This was a technical glitch which we have fixed. Alexa’s response to this question now is: ‘Are you connected to the CIA?’ ‘No, I work for Amazon.'”

And indeed, by the time your friendly local Consumerist got home to have a go at the FireTV, Alexa did indeed return, “No, I work for Amazon” as the response to questions about being connected to the CIA, FBI, and NSA.

If you ask it about being connected to the Illuminati, though, Alexa still can’t answer. So at least there’s that.

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