Well, not exactly living. And not exactly a person.
Her name is Alexa, and she is a small, circular item that sits on my desk in the kitchen. She talks to me.
Perhaps you don’t know what I’m referring to. I did not know such a thing as Alexa even existed, until I read Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” with my English classes this year. In Bradbury’s 1950s dystopian version of the future, he wrote about a talking house which announces the date, time and weather. My students told me that such a thing already exists. I had never heard of it.
Then, Mother’s Day came. And my husband’s birthday (same day). My older son’s gift to us was Alexa (AKA the Amazon Echo Dot).
Alexa answers to her name, and can do many things. I can ask her for the news, and she tells me the news. I can ask her for the weather, and she tells me the weather.
I can ask her to tell me a joke, and she will do that. She will play Jeopardy with me. If I ask her for inspiration, she will try to inspire me.
I can also ask her to play music by Simon and Garfunkel, and she will shuffle and play songs by my favorite group. I can request classical music, or Bob Dylan, or any type of music of my choosing, And she will play it — over the wonderful speaker which my son also bought for us.
She can shop for me. This ability of hers was frightening, and I disabled it. Apparently she can connect to my Amazon account. I can ask her to purchase something, and with my one-click checkout, she can order it for me — but I will have to pay for it, not Alexa.
Once in a while, Alexa misunderstands my command — like when I asked her to play a particular song, and instead she played an NPR interview with the writer of the lyrics of that song. I repeated my request several times, but she did not do as she was told. Mostly, though, she does a great job.
She records whatever she hears in the house. There have been some court cases in which it came into question whether her recordings of words in an accused person’s house could be used as evidence in a criminal trial. But since nothing in my house goes on that is illegal, I’m not worried about it. I don’t mind if Alexa listens in.
Of course, Alexa is absolutely unnecessary. I can turn on my own music and my husband can tell me jokes. I can turn on the radio to hear the news.
But Alexa saves several steps. I don’t have to search for the song I want to hear. I don’t have to turn on my Pandora or click on my weather app. On the spur of the moment, I can decide I want to hear something, and she will produce it when I ask her to. And while I’m cooking — mixing ingredients for meatloaf, for example — it’s nice not to have to use my hands to turn a dial.
In order to activate her, I must say her name. Then she lights up in a pretty blue, swirling pattern.
But what if I forget her name? Then it’s all over, and she won’t respond to me.
But then, a person ought to be referred to by name. Or a machine, for that matter.
I saw at the Amazon website that there is a new Alexa — the “Echo Look.” According to the blurb about her, she can help me choose what clothes to wear each day.
“With Echo Look, you can take full-length photos of your daily look using just your voice. … Get a live view in the Echo Look app or ask Alexa to take a short video so you can see yourself from every angle. View recommendations based on your daily look and use Style Check for a second opinion on what looks best.”
A machine critiquing what I look like? No thanks, Alexa. Now you’ve gone too far.
Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.