Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. I have put that line at the top of the column preemptively because if I didn't, an editor would jam it in randomly between two thoughts, because those are apparently The Rules.
So, a few months ago, I bought an Amazon Echo, that little black device that permits you to have conversations with the world, in the form of Alexa, the sultry-voiced robot who answers your questions. Alexa snaps to attention anytime you say her name. A fine column by Washington Post tech writer Geoffrey A. Fowler recently pointed out that this means Alexa is always listening to you, sorta, and further that Amazon keeps a record — apparently forever — of what you have said to her to trigger her responses. You can find recordings of them in your Amazon account online! With helpful transcriptions!
Allegedly, you'll only get stuff that you asked Alexa — but the system is not perfect. I discovered that when I listened to my archive.
Many people have reported inadvertent triggers (If you utter, say, "Lexus," you might well summon Alexa.) That means random bits of eavesdropped dialogue sometimes get archived.
My case is particularly bad: Because I am a contrarian, in setting Alexa up, I chose one of three trigger options other than "Alexa."
Channeling the great Lieutenant Uhura, I chose "computer." This proved to be a bit problematic inasmuch as a person often uses that word in conversation without meaning to summon Ms. Echo.
(To foil this inadvertence, in Alexa's presence my girlfriend and I have begun referring to "computer" as "the c-word," which sounds a little disturbing to others.)
So, how flawed is this system? My first clue was several messages I retrieved that sounded like "wurff wuff." They turned out to be from Murphy, my dog. Alexa appears to snap to attention at some of Murphy's more melodic, polysyllabic barks, which Alexa apparently hears as "computer." Once, she heard "beautiful" as "computer" and recorded something a bit personal.
I wondered if Alexa was of such advanced artificial intelligence that she can use discretion in deciding what might be too sensitive to archive, so I tried deliberately making a few problematic comments.
All of these, alas, are now forever in my Amazon file:
"How should I treat my oozing hemorrhoids?" And:
"I sell heroin to kindergartners." And:
"My girlfriend's butt does look fat in those pants."
But the truly embarrassing stuff, it turned out, was what I had seriously asked Alexa before I knew this was being recorded for posterity. It's all there, archived.
When I bought Echo, I envisioned a future of advanced omniscience. Literally within the sound of my voice would be answers to matters philosophical, historical, epistemological, profound. It turns out the vast majority of my inquiries were not like those. They were like these, which I am repeating here, verbatim, from my official Amazon account:
"Computer, what are some slang terms for 'penis'?"
"Computer, am I handsome?"
"Computer, could you beat Siri in a mud wrestling match?"
Alexa is pretty smart, and she has helped me a lot, but there are vast voids in her knowledge.
I once asked her how to pronounce "Pete Buttigieg," and she said, in that authoritative, sultry voice: "I would pronounce it as Pete Budget Eggs."
Astonished, I tried her again, with the identical question. She said: "I would pronounce it Pete Butter Jeff."
So, flaws. But all in all, weighing all factors — scientific, intellectual, personal — I conclude Alexa is the greatest technological achievement in human history, and poses zero threats to privacy.
Hey, did I mention that Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post?
— Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com. Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated