At its core, the Amazon Echo is a listening device. Even though the nice, round shape doesn’t give it away, the Echo has seven microphones inside that pick up on sounds in your home. That’s partially for listening to you talk, so Alexa can respond to your questions and demands. But how else might Amazon use the sonic data that Alexa collects daily?
That’s the question behind an art installation called The Dark Age of Connectionism, where an off-the-shelf Amazon Echo Dot is suspended in the middle of a room that’s rigged up with additional microphones–microphones hanging from the ceiling, microphones on stands, and microphones on the floor to pick up movement–that all have the same sensitivity as the Echo itself.
Any slight sound will trigger a computer program that uses the voice of Siri to ask Alexa a question. If you’re quiet enough, you can hear her response; if you’re not, Siri might end up just repeating, “Alexa, Alexa, Alexa” again and again, trying to ask another question with each sound it detects.
“Alexa, why are you called Alexa?” Siri asks.
Alexa responds with, “My name comes from the Library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.”
But before it can finish, Siri asks, “Alexa, what’s your father’s middle name?”–a common security question. More footsteps in the room. “Alexa.” “Alexa.” “Alexa,” Siri says.
“Whenever you’re moving around, you’re producing a lot of sonic information, sonic data,” says Wesley Goatley, the London-based sound artist who created the installation for the Haunted Random Forest Festival, which focuses on art that critiques machine learning systems. “You get a sense of all the data and sound people pour into an Echo at any time. You have to police your own movements in order to not feed the object sonic information.”
It’s important to think about because the Echo could feasibly record the number of footsteps around it and figure out how many people live in your house. If it hears a baby crying, you might start seeing ads for diapers. If it knows you live with a significant other and hears shouting or loud sounds one night, do you start seeing ads for therapists or domestic violence hotlines?
“All these sounds have massive meaning, but we might think these things are just listening to our voices. What other sounds do we feed into those systems every day?” Goatley asks. “How do these sounds have meaning when you’re giving them to a very computationally powerful system like this, with people who have a vested interest in building a marketable profile?”
Not only does the installation force its viewers to become hyper-aware of the sounds they make, but it also points out how little users really know about what the Echo–and Amazon–knows about them, and about itself. Goatley crowdsourced questions to use for the installation from a diverse group of people. Some of the most striking include: “Alexa, how many kilowatts per hour do data centers use?” “Alexa, can law enforcement agencies get access to Echo voice records?” “Alexa, are you always listening?”
“One thing Alexa never does is ask you a question,” Goatley says. “That’s our role, to ask questions about the role these things play in our lives.”
In a video of the installation, “Alexa” is repeated again and again as people move around it. But when the viewers are quiet and Siri can finally get a question in, it quickly becomes clear that while the device may be powered by some of the most complex machine learning algorithms out there, it is unable to grapple with difficult questions–that remains humans’ job, both as consumers and as designers.
“It’s an interesting moment to think about what it means to invite these devices into the home,” Goatley says. “One thing that does come out–it’s very good at hearing if you’ve asked it to order something. It goes to show the ideologies that get built into these devices. They’re never neutral.”