Alexa: A Good Member of the Family?

Smart speakers and personal assistants are becoming ubiquitous.

Posted Nov 17, 2019

During a hotel stay the other day, after noticing an Alexa, I asked her to turn herself off. I did not want “her” to eavesdrop on anything we said.

Smart speakers and personal assistants are becoming ubiquitous. And they are very handy in families. As per a conversation on NPR’s 1A, the advantageous uses were many (I’ve added a few):

  • Alarm clock
  • Dim the lights
  • Shopping lists
  • Reminders to feed the dog or do some errand
  • Scheduling children for the bathroom (different music for each child) or brushing teeth
  • Answering the same question over and over (as young children may do)
  • Find and play a podcast
  • Tell jokes
  • Parents can share experiences with children, like requesting a song you grew up with and having a dance party.

All these options seem helpful for busy families. But parents noted several obvious drawbacks of having a family Alexa:

  • children can request a song dozens of times a day (as occurred with “Baby Shark” recently)
  • replacing things a parent should do, like reading a bedtime story

Will Alexa tell too much? For parents worried about answers to questions inappropriate for their child—such as, "Where do babies come from?"—Alexa creators have made a child-friendly “Free Time.” Parents can set limits, such as making Alexa unresponsive at homework or bed-time. Echo Dot Kids has parenting controls: no interaction past bedtime or during particular times like dinner time or homework.

But there are other concerns. Alexa is always “listening in” to family conversations. In fact, Alexa is not a computer and cannot process requests locally but sends the request to Amazon’s cloud service for transcription before responding.

Echo devices record and upload conversations that are analyzed by a team around the world. Amazon contends that this for improving consumer experience. This is monetization of private information. Who will end up seeing this information?

Perhaps it is safe then to use a hotel’s smart speaker because presumably, the company would not go to the trouble of figuring out who stayed in the room on a particular day (right?). Maybe next time a hotel room has Alexa I’ll keep it on and have it play my favorite childhood songs.