Fun with an Amazon Echo

Some people I visited a while back had an Amazon Echo, the device that connects to Amazon’s Alexa AI. I won’t have one in my house. A microphone that’s always on – waiting for the ‘hey Alexa’ call – and thus potentially sending everything back to a database run by persons unknown (and, at times, actively listening, I gather) is a bit too Aldous Huxley for me.

Still, messing with an AI system was too good an opportunity to miss. I thought I’d try out a few questions. These included:

1. ‘Kirk or Picard?’ Alas, Alexa doesn’t have an opinion.

2. ‘Open the pod bay doors’. Alexa won’t do that. Why? Apparently because Alexa’s not Hal, and we’re not in space.

3. ‘Calculate the square root of negative one.’ Hee hee. The answer is a number that doesn’t exist (it’s part of the imaginary number set) and I was expecting the Echo to disappear in a black vortex as the universe sucked in on itself, but all Alexa said was ‘The square root of -1 is i.’ Smart move. Avoided the total destruction of the known universe, that did.

4. ‘What was the time fifteen minutes ago?’ Alexa knew that (8.24 I think).

5. ‘What are the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotmoline?’ Alexa doesn’t know. I do. It’s the title of a short story by Isaac Asimov, riffing on the language of formal science papers.

I didn’t ask whether it was possible to repair an interociter. Nor did I ask Alexa to tell me the value of pi to the last decimal place, and not to allow any other instruction to interfere with the recitation, which I saw my favourite Trek captain do when the NCC-1701 Enterprise‘s computer was possessed by an alien. I’m sure Amazon’s programmers are wise to that one.

Next target: baiting Wolfram Alpha.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

9 thoughts on “Fun with an Amazon Echo

  1. Great post!

    I will not have Amazon Echo or anything like it in my house, in my car, or where I work. I work in the high tech field and I know how this will end.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that in the not too distant future we will not be able to opt out of such things. Buying something seemingly innocent, like a TV or toaster will probably open our homes to Amazon (or whoever is the evil empire at the time).

    In the meantime, we might as well have fun with our eventual subjugation! Try the pi one. I want to hear the results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll check out the pi trick next time I see anybidy with an Echo. I won’t have one, Even if the vendor is responsible, such things can be hacked; and what happens to the data, later, if it falls into different hands?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As someone who is registered blind and unable to read print, I am a fan of the Amazon Echo. I use it mainly for playing books from, listening to music and reading Kindle titles with the text to speech enabled. I have asked the Echo questions with some rather humorous results. I understand your concerns about the device (or rather it’s human designers) listening in. You can, I understand opt out of this in the Echo’s settings but I guess that many people are unaware of this fact. The advantage to the device recording/allowing your data to be processed is that it assists the AI’s systems to become smarter thereby improving the user experience which is to the benefit of all users. The data is analysed anonomously which does not particularly concern me (I would be worried about the government or hackers listening in, but not Amazon in order to improve the operation of the Echo). I think your concerns are, perhaps more centred around George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in 1984, where the telescreen both receives and transmits, than Huxley’s Brave New World in which genetically conditioned people are socialised by a world state. In Brave New World there is no telescreen. Best wishes – Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have no doubt the Echo and similar devices are able to transform lives – as you describe. But I get uneasy about the hackability; and while Amazon or Google will doubtless be responsible with their data (if it isn’t hacked), what worries me is what happems later, if the data is transferred elsewhere? The Huxley future I fear we are in is the one where a society chooses to be subjugated, as opposed to the Orwellian notion of such subjugation by force.


      1. Ah, I understand the Huxley reference. What I don’t understand is how your concern regarding the hackability of the Echo differs from concerns about the hackability of home and/or office computers, which can also be hacked? I know that (with computers) one can reduce risks by anti virus software, using proxies etc, however the danger is still there. Best – Kevin

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, you’re right – any item these days can be hacked (and people seem to be queuing up to do it, too). The difference between a home PC and Alexa is that Alexa data (along with data collected by any similar device) is not held locally, but by the collecting company, And they do get hacked. Or they do something stupid with their own security systems that opens them up to data loss. Ironically, it’s easier to keep security over your own local computer these days it seems. I should add that cloud data, to me, has similar risks to the Alexa one – it’s not under your control and it might be hacked. The question, I guess, is how worried an individual is about their loss of privacy in these cases.


  3. I also like messing with AIs- even if I would never want one in my home. It’s good Alexa didn’t blow up the universe answering the question “what’s the square root of negative 1”- dodged a bullet there 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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