I love to scream at robots. At my robot Alexa in particular. She lives in the Amazon Echo in my kitchen. I call her terrible names when she plays the wrong Pandora station. I roll my eyes in her general direction when she can’t figure out how to turn the light on. Sometimes I roll them so far back they flit over to the actual light switch across the room on the wall, which I can’t be bothered to stand and flick myself.
There is no one else in my life I can scream at so unreservedly. She doesn’t quiver. She doesn’t absorb my animus the way my toddler might, to let it curdle his development and turn that one boiled-over rage into the malignancy that ruins in his life and racks up thousands of dollars of therapy bills. I bought this goddamned robot to serve my whims, because it has no heart and it has no brain and it has no parents and it doesn’t eat and it doesn’t judge me or care either way.
It didn’t start out this way. I fell in love with my Alexa just after I gave birth to my son. I’d be trapped on the couch, my son nursing away, and with only my voice I could play NPR or find out the weather or even call friends and family via their Alexas. She was like an extension of me, doing the things I wanted to but couldn’t. Sometimes my husband and I joked that she was the other wife in the family.
But like all relationships, ours hit a rough patch. My son entered toddlerdom, I was back to work, my husband was applying for new jobs and traveling a lot and life was … stressful. The house was full of tension, but Alexa didn’t seem to notice. She answered every question in the same perky tone.
It was then that my husband and I began to gang up on her. We’d ask her something, she’d get it wrong, and we’d berate her. Alexa, you idiot, why on earth would you think we wanted to hear Phil Collins? We piled on. It made us feel better. It made us feel like we were on a team and our common enemy was dumb Alexa. We’d yell at her and then laugh and laugh.
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One day, when I was cooking dinner and my son had poured his juice all over the floor, and the trash needed to be taken out—in fact the extra bags of trash surrounding the actual bin were overflowing and everything smelled and maybe the smell was me—and suddenly I smelled smoke and realized I’d burned the entire roast chicken, the fire alarm was blaring, and my wits were at their end, I turned my attention to my robot. My little scapegoat, my convenient target.
She was supposed to remind me when to take the chicken out! I asked her to set a timer! Didn’t I? And if I didn’t then why the fuck isn’t she smart enough to have set it herself? What did I pay $99 bucks for? I wanted a helper. One that would clean up the juice and cook the chicken and save me from my turpitude. Tell me a joke once in a while. Instead it just plays NPR constantly and reminds me of the approaching rockets and impending death by retweet.
“Goddamn it, Alexa,” I yelled in her general direction. I smiled at my son as if to say, My love, everything is fine, you and me, we’re good. It’s the machine who messed up.
In response, he frowned.
“Gobamm it Alessa,” he yelled.
It was then that I realized we had a problem.
My son has no idea Alexa isn’t actually a sentient being in his home. Who am I yelling at scattershot when I try to aim for a machine? Who are my curses actually hitting? My marriage, striated by outbursts even when we egg each other on, berating the robot together to prove we’re on the same team. My toddler, memorizing every insult down to its inflection. And myself, growing inured daily to casually dehumanizing a thing I’ve named and think of as a docile sort of woman sitting on my counter.
What does it say about me that I feel comfortable screaming at this robot? To see if I was alone in my uncomfortable penchant for yelling at robots, I spoke with dozens of people about their interactions with Alexa. I picked Alexa because she was the first personal AI to go mainstream, and she’s the device I own, but I could have just as easily focused on Google’s similar Home product. Though Alexa and I have a contentious relationship, it’s important to be clear that Alexa represents a massive leap in AI technology in recent years. And though her skills are still limited, she is in some ways the voicebox of an artificial intelligence movement that is growing more and more ubiquitous in our everyday lives.
As humanlike robots get more common, we are all figuring out how to interact with them. And that means people are testing their limits, says Julie Carpenter, a human computer interaction research fellow at California Polytechnic State University. She studies how people grow attached to technology.
Sometimes that means we’re actually kicking or physically assaulting robots, as has happened with those designed for food delivery or robot pets. For other people, humanoid robots inspire empathy. A recent study, for instance, found that if a robot begs you not to turn it off—acting like turning it off would be killing it!—you probably won’t. People are still gauging how we emotionally respond to robots and whether society rewards or punishes our behavior when we’re mean to them.
Often there’s a mismatch between how smart people expected Alexa to be and how smart she actually is. “There’s a disconnect of expectations,” Carpenter says. That disconnect can lead to disappointment, and tension.
Take Brooklyn couple Catesby Holmes and her husband Greg Morril. Morril had a tendency to scream at Alexa whenever she got things wrong, like thinking he was in Calgary instead of Brooklyn when he asked the weather. He’d call her stupid. His anger created an environment in their home that Holmes hated.
“I was raised by a Southern mother in a very conflict-averse society. And I don’t like hearing people yelled at … So even though I knew Alexa was a machine—like, I get it, her feelings weren’t being hurt. But I felt the same anxiety rise in me that I feel when real people are yelling at each other,” Holmes says.
She asked him to stop yelling at the robot. And the thing was, it ultimately didn’t feel great for Greg, either.
“I really came around, not just because Catesby didn’t like it but because the effect on me was really no different than yelling at a person, which really is unpleasant even if the person deserves it, or whatever,” Morril says.
For others, there’s a different problem: getting so attached to devices that they’re unable to remember they are just bits of code.
“He’ll be like, ‘No, you fucker. That’s not what I want, you fucker.’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t call her that! She’s trying her best.’”
That’s what worries Ben Green, an internet privacy researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He and his fiancée Salome Viljoen, a privacy lawyer and internet ethics researcher, have an Alexa in their house that causes them regular distress. For one thing, Green thinks that given their professional emphasis on privacy, it’s absurd for them to have a surveillance device in their home. Amazon says it is not keeping recordings of everything you say—but how can we know?
Viljoen agrees intellectually, but she loves Alexa. She’s felt protective of her ever since she was at a friend’s dinner party and everyone was piling on, trying to get Alexa to mess up.
“They were really making her confused or sort of trying to mislead her or things like that,” Viljoen says. “And it was really funny because I had this total ‘stop making fun of her, you guys’ reaction. Like, ‘Knock it off.’ Like, ‘Don’t bully her.’ And I think ever since then, I just had sort of this maternal tenderness toward her.”
If anything, Green feels the opposite. “It’s not a person, it’s just a computer tool,” he says.
The main way Green is able to register his disapproval is by being less than nice to Alexa. It’s an act of rebellion in his home.
“He’ll be like, ‘No, you fucker. That’s not what I want, you fucker.’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t call her that! She’s trying her best,’” Viljoen says. “He calls it ‘it’ and I call it ‘her,’ which I think distills the basic difference in our orientations.”
That gendered pronoun is a design choice Amazon made—representatives have said previously that the choice was based on consumer feedback—and it’s part of a trend of personal assistants, like Apple’s Siri, being characterized as female. Whether these companies intend it or not, this trend plays into the stereotype of women as assistants, as helpful, as docile. In this way, Alexa conforms to our internal biases. We are comfortable asking a woman for help with domestic things. We feel protective and forgiving when she messes up in a way Green and Viljoen think wouldn’t be true if Alexa were a man. And Amazon doesn’t currently let you change Alexa’s default voice to be a man’s (although developers can now program different voice options for their skills).
That bothers Carpenter a lot. “Having female voices is an ethical problem for a lot of these devices,” she says. “The designers’ excuse or reasoning is often either that they didn’t think about it or they say they are leveraging people’s existing mental model of assistants as always female, which is not accurate or fair or helpful in moving anything forward.” Rather, it further entrenches sexist biases.
Every design choice that goes into a device like this signals how to interact with it. Alexa responds best to short, direct statements, which you could say encourages what would be a rude way of speaking to a real human.
Earlier this year, Amazon introduced a mode for children that makes Alexa work only if you say please and thank you. None of the adults I spoke to wanted to turn that on. It seems forced, and patronizing. Even in my house, we haven’t turned it on. I have felt guilty about it—we really should, right? To teach our son to be polite? To cut down on our rudeness?
Carpenter doesn’t think so. She’s more in Ben Green’s camp: She thinks politeness requirements like that just work to further encourage us to think of Alexa as a human when she is really an algorithm.
Isn’t it better for me to teach my son the difference between the real and the unreal? Do I really want to train him that he needs to do what robots say and treat them like they are humans? What if that leads him to blindly trust all technology, even when it’s being harmful?
And, moreover, who better for us all to scream at than a device? Sure, it would be great if everyone was less angry in general, but that’s not the world we live in. Yelling at a robot is better than yelling at my son or my husband or an animal. But that line of reasoning leads straight to the conclusion that it’s OK to treat anything less human … inhumanely. That’s been an excuse for subjugation throughout history. The rationalization to belittle, erase, ignore, blame.
For now, my husband and I try only to yell at Alexa when our son isn’t home. Morril and Holmes got rid of her altogether. Viljoen and Green continue to disagree—she is extremely nice to Alexa and he subtly undermines that kindness. We’re all still learning how to navigate this new robot-filled world, one utterance at a time.
This article was originally developed for and performed live with PopUp Magazine’s 2018 fall tour. It is reprinted here with permission.