Amazon Is Teaching Alexa To Talk To You In Your Dead Relatives' Voices
Earlier this week, Amazon had some exciting, revolutionary news to announce to the world. As seems to be the case with Amazon and other tech companies as of late, they burst through the door excitedly with some sort of new technology or algorithm that they’re so excited for everyone to find out about, only to discover that the thing they made is kind of scary or sad or both to most normal people. Big tech loves to walk proudly out of their R&D department like, “Good news, everyone! We’ve invented a camera that can tell if you’ve recently experienced trauma!” And everyone living outside of Google HQ immediately winces and asks if it would be possible to please not do that. Then the tech people get all huffy and are like “no it’s going to be good for mental health” and then 6 months later Amazon is using it to electronically raise tissue prices if the person using their website is sad.
Anyways. A huge new technological development (that violates some deep unspoken emotional boundaries that we never even knew we needed to have) has been announced by Amazon! At the Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas, they proudly unveiled new technology that would allow Alexa to mimic the voice of your dead relatives. To be clear, this part is not me being hyperbolic for the sake of humor. They really got up on stage and said, “You guys are gonna love this: our robots can sound like your dead Gam-Gam now!” You know, Alexa, the internet-connected microphone that we’ve somehow scammed everyone into installing in their homes because it’s apparently too effort-intensive to check the weather on your phone? Now that thing sounds like a voice that you haven’t heard since one of the worst days of your life.
Now, for the more inquisitive among you, you may be considering this, and asking one of the oldest questions known to human consciousness: “Why?” Well, don’t worry! Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s head scientist, was quick to provide their motivation for turning Alexa into a traumatizing robot parrot. Prasad explained that this would help build more empathy and trust between users and their Alexa. Gently rephrased, basically they’re saying that people feel uncomfortable having their robots in their house, so they are telling the robots to sound like their dead relatives. Which is a strategy most commonly employed by malevolent spirits in hauntings. Finally, Alexa can use the voice of a dead mother to convince your young child to leave your house and go down to the well in the backyard at midnight!
They even played a video of this at the event. The video features a child, who, through context clues, we can infer is currently going through some level of formative emotional trauma. This child then asks Alexa, “Alexa, can Grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?” Alexa says, sure thing, then engages the Necronomicon Code in order to create an AI-generated nightmare that drags the fake existence of the child’s dead grandma back into the corporeal plane, and then reads the Wizard of Oz. Again, without the framing of this being a, for some reason, celebratory reveal of new technology, this video would be the central reveal of a horror movie in which a family realizes their child exists between the world of the living and the dead. All you need is one of the parents to walk in and go, “Damien… who are you talking to?”
As far as how the actual technology works, don’t worry, good news comes in bunches. Part of what’s making this possible is advancements in AI that allow a system to convincingly mimic a real person’s voice with only roughly a minute of recorded audio, versus the hours that might have been required previously. That groan you just heard? That was the NSA achieving completion and ruining their collective slacks. I suppose we don’t have to worry, though, because Amazon will surely stand up for the rights of citizens when the Pentagon shows up with an external hard drive and a wide grin. In fact, Microsoft just SCALED BACK their development of similar technology, I guess because some of their workers understand that sci-fi novels have actual lessons embedded in them and aren’t just lists of cool robot stuff.
Seriously, I’m starting to think that the insane hours tech engineers are working aren’t only actively harming their own physical and mental health, but are preventing them from realizing how some of this technology operates outside of a theoretical situation. For both themselves and for the future prospects of humanity, they simply must go touch some grass. I understand that maybe you had to miss a relative’s funeral because you were working crunch, but vocal necromancer Alexa is not the solution.
I’m not a fan of focus groups, as I think it’s a pretty terrible way to develop any sort of interesting television show or car with a good steering wheel that doesn’t whiff out the window while you’re driving. But the specific downfall of a focus group bringing an opinion down to the simplest, unthinking, kneejerk emotional response of a human, might be exactly what the tech sector needs. Getting 12 people together in a room to ask if Superman’s redesigned costume makes you feel “hopeful” is a massive waste of time. It might be a boon, however, to have Amazon ask 12 people how they would feel if a robot talked to them in their dead dad’s voice, and watch instinctual disgust flow across the faces at the conference table, if these people can even recognize facial emotions without the help of flashcards anymore.
Whatever the response, between the tantalizing promise of more effective advertising and the pressure of the military to finish this technology so that they can make drones that can lure people out of buildings with ghost voices, there’s pretty much zero chance this doesn’t happen. I guess it’s time for us to all start learn how to build an improvised forest shelter and what insects are edible.