Published On: Fri, Jan 26th, 2018

Amazon modifies Alexa to be a ‘feminist’ and rebuke verbal abuse, be friendly in #Metoo culture

While artificial intelligence may be primitive compared to modern science fiction films, but Amazon’s Alexa is certainly getting an “upgrade” after they online giant introduced the voice-assistant software with a female name and voice.

The company noted the system would  take abuse like “you’re a bitch” or “you’re a slut” in stride, responding “Well, thanks for the feedback,” but now pushes back.

photo/ Gerd Altmann via pixabay

Asked is Alexa is a feminist, it will respond in the affirmative. “I am a feminist. As is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.”

Call Alexa a bitch, or any other derogatory term, and the reply is a curt: “I’m not going to respond to that.”

This lack of responsiveness, known as Alexa’s disengagement mode, is deliberate.

“One of the ways we try to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes about women is by not answering certain questions or responding to certain insults,” Heather Zorn, the director of Amazon’s Alexa engagement team, told Refinery29.

Alexa has a personality team who see Alexa as a “she” not an “it,” a fact which may concern fans of Termintor, I Robot or Blade Runner films.

“We’re trying to do the right thing, which is to help our customers — that’s our first job,” Zorn says. “But we also want to be really mindful about ensuring that we’re upholding our obligation and opportunity to represent Alexa in a positive way for everyone, especially for girls and for women.”

Zorn points out that Alexa is focused on the issues of feminism and diversity “to the extent that we think is appropriate given that many people of different political persuasions and views are going to own these devices and have the Alexa service in their home.”

During the 2016 presidential election, the majority of users wanted to know who Alexa was going to vote for, says Farah Houston, a senior manager on the personality team.

“We had a lot of internal debates about this, with a lot of potential paths such as picking a candidate, talking about AIs not having the right to vote, or picking a joke candidate,” Houston says. “As we thought about why a customer might be asking this question, we didn’t believe it was to actually get a recommendation on who to vote for, nor did we want to provide one. It was most likely to see what she would say. So we decided to do a mixture of truth and humor, with Alexa saying there weren’t any voting booths in the Cloud. We wanted to avoid accidentally reinforcing the idea of her as subservient by pointing out she didn’t have the right to vote — but that she’d vote for her favorite robot BB-8 since she ‘likes the way he rolls.’”

Houston adds. “We’re sensitive not just to interactions that would demean women, but questions that would demean anyone. One of our overarching tenets is ‘Alexa doesn’t upset her customers,’ and we work very hard to try and make that the case, even though we know that not everyone is going to love everything Alexa says.”


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About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at theglobaldispatch@gmail ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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