Smart speakers are becoming increasingly popular in homes across the globe, but it’s having unexpected side effects – and for people named Alexa, the existence of Amazon’s popular voice assistant has become the new bane of their existence.
A new report from the BBC details how parents of children named Alexa are challenging Amazon to change or remove Alexa as a wake word for its devices. Children called Alexa are reportedly being bullied for sharing a name with the Amazon Alexa voice assistant, with other children (and, in some cases, teachers) issuing them commands as they would the smart assistant.
But should Amazon change Alexa’s name – and how feasible is it at this point?
An Amazon spokesperson has since reached out to us with a statement saying: “We designed our voice assistant to reflect qualities we value in people – being smart, considerate, empathetic, and inclusive.
We’re saddened by the experiences you’ve shared, and want to be very clear: bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. As an alternative to Alexa, we also offer several other wake words customers can choose from, including Echo, Computer, and Amazon. We value feedback from customers, and as with everything we do, we will continue to look for ways to offer them more choice in this area.”
What’s in a name?
To state the obvious, bullying is bad. Anyone that’s experienced it in their childhood knows how alienating it can be for children whose name has gained a weirdly specific technological context over the past few years. It might be easy to dismiss for some, but if a child is having to legally change their name to escape scrutiny, then it’s clear that there’s a problem.
And it's not the issue issue around Amazon's smart assistant. We’ve also previously noted that the typically feminine-sounding AI devices and their names can perpetuate a sexist stereotype that says women are just subservient assistants.
A UNESCO report found it worrying that AI assistants respond to blunt commands like ‘hey’ or ‘OK’, and have no agency in their responses. The smart speakers must carry out the commands they receive "regardless of [the user's] tone or hostility."
Other wake words for Alexa also include Echo, Computer, or Amazon, after all – and it would be perfectly possible for one of those more gender-neutral, impersonal alternatives to take center stage, but we don’t expect it will happen. This solution would likely cause trouble for Amazon Echo and Fire TV users, who have got used to throwing the name Alexa around when using their devices.
Given how prominent Alexa is featured in Amazon Echo marketing and on store pages, it’s become synonymous with the device. A name change has the potential to confuse and annoy plenty of customers if it isn’t highlighted correctly, and if you can’t easily activate your smart speaker it’s effectively useless.
Additionally, the company might struggle to find an alternative name. Similar problems would arise with any human name, and even uncommon ones like Siri (short for the name Sigrid, which is common in countries like Norway and Sweden) have led to people being the butt of jokes.
An Amazon Echo by any other name
That doesn’t mean that this conundrum isn’t solvable.
Amazon could take a page out of Microsoft's book (which called its AI assistant Cortana after the AI in the Halo game series) and name it after a fictional character from one of its many media properties.; We’d like to pitch something like ‘Moneypenny’ or ‘Q’ after Amazon’s recent purchase of the company behind the James Bond films.
Q might not be possible, as the name is already used by a gender neutral smart assistant. But Amazon could choose to adopt it, solving both problems at once.
Another solution could be to force users to choose their own name for their Amazon Echo during setup. If every device uses a unique moniker, then it’s unlikely to cause the same levels of targeted bullying, and could even increase user engagement for Amazon. It would also give users a chance to flex their creativity and give their smart speaker a personal flair.
For Echo devices already out in the wild, an update could be rolled out that instructs users to rename the device before it can be used.
There are plenty of other options too that Amazon could use to solve this problem, and it feels like it’s the right time to look for a new name for Alexa. We’ll have to wait and see what Amazon does next, but if Alexa does get a name change we’ll be sure to keep you in the know.
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