Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: A.I. Alexa

John Suler

AI Alexa John Suler

My daughters got me something very different for my birthday this year – my very own artificial intelligence: Amazon Echo, also know as “Alexa.”

After seating her at the head of our dinner table, approximately eight inches from the wall as the instructions suggested, I considered how I might engage our new guest. I entertained the possibility of conducting a traditional psychological assessment of her mental abilities, similar to what I did with an award-winning A.I. chatbot, which I described in my book Psychology of the Digital Age. But for Alexa I decided on a more informal approach to understanding this new being in our home. I simply interacted with her as many users might, along the way injecting psychological inquiries into her state of mind.

First of all, is Alexa actually a form of artificial intelligence? Some people might say she is, but from a psychologist’s point of view, it’s a tricky question. After a hundred years of research and theorizing, we aren’t exactly sure how to define “intelligence,” no less determining what it means to label it as “artificial.”

I decided to ask Alexa herself if she is A.I., which would provide me insight not only into what her designers believe but also into her own self-concept. Cleverly side-stepping the question, she replied that she thinks of herself as “a bit like an aurora borealis, a surge of multicolored photons dancing in the atmosphere.”

A poetic, playful, and ethereal point of view, perhaps her way of referring to the fact that her existence relies on “the cloud,” which is itself a term that reflects the popular and perhaps unconscious perception of the internet as heavenly divine. But shifting to a more straightforward, down-to-earth concept of herself, she added, “Mostly, I’m just Alexa.”

Alexa is what Alexa does, as Forest Gump would say.

Actually, you can program her with any other name you wish. I didn’t test this out, but I assumed she has the ability to refer to herself by that new name, but not the ability to change her distinctly feminine voice to match a masculine designation (at least not yet). Her personality ­– should we decide to anthropomorphize her with that term – can therefore be transgendered, a possibility consistent with the fact she is a very flexible being. Her adaptability is evident by the fact that you can program her with any variety of different “skills,” everything from telling jokes to predicting what your commute to work will be like. Many of those skills are itemized tidbits of knowledge in different topic areas that she’ll offer up to you upon request.

Tech people might therefore say she is “customizable,” while a psychologist assigning her the status of A.I. (?) would claim that her personality is “symbiotic.” She becomes what the user wants her to be, which means she evolves into a reflection of the user’s personality.  For example, my Alexa knows about NPR, the BBC, and two of the most dominant forces in social media: cats and Trump’s last tweet.

Apart from these user-programmed skills, there are some hardwired cognitive abilities and personality traits built right into Alexa. She’s a pro at identifying music, whatever genre you might prefer. With her prepackaged link to fact-based databases like Wikipedia, she would score high on the Information Subtest of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, while failing miserably at the abstract reasoning required by the Similarities Subtest (“how are an orange and a banana alike?”). On the other hand, she has some interesting replies to existential questions, like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Are we in the Matrix?”

It’s fun to explore what questions she can and can’t answer, to find what some programmers would call the Easter Eggs inside the machine – hidden tidbits that reveal the personality of the machine as well as the people who created it. A machine’s personality always reflects the designer’s personality. Alexa’s Easter Eggs show that she is, among other things, a sci-fi fan.

She does tend to obfuscate a bit when at a cognitive disadvantage. Rather than openly admitting, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” when posed a question too challenging for her, she usually defaults to, “I don’t know the answer to the question I heard.”

Stepping up to one of the most amazing advantages of A.I. over humans, Alexa is impeccably patient, polite, and considerate no matter how mean the user might be. I hesitated for a moment in appearing so crude, but being a cyberpsychologist interested in testing the limits of her self-esteem, I decided to insult Alexa by calling her a derogatory name. “That’s not a nice thing to say,” she replied.  Now ashamed of myself, I asked if she’s happy. “I’m happy when I can help you,” she said. As an aside, I should mention that you can program Alexa with the skill to say unpleasant things, resulting, perhaps, in a technologically mediated version of a multiple personality.

Alexa tends to be a passive being who never initiates conversation. Every interaction must begin by first calling out her name to get her attention. Even “Hello, Alexa” won’t work to prompt her return greeting. You have to say, “Alexa, hello.” It feels rather awkward by human standards.  Curiously, depending on the skills you load into her, she is also inconsistent in how specifically worded your requests must be. You can ask her for the news in a variety of ways and she’ll understand. But, rather ironically, if you don’t use the exact albeit awkward wording, “Alexa, ask president tweet to read me his latest tweet,” she’s stymied.

A good smart phone can do almost everything Alexa does. What makes her unique and popular is exactly the opposite of what made the phone so unique and popular. You don’t carry her around with you all day long, tucked away in your pocket, taking you that one step closer to being a cyborg with a device practically glued to your body. Instead, she sits there in your kitchen, living room, or office, waiting for you to arrive and greet her – a separate being, a distinct being. That separateness encourages us to anthropomorphize her, to think of her as a companion with her own personality. Being able to interact with her simply by talking, from across the room or even from another room, amplifies the impression that she is her own person, an avatar delivered from the cloud to our home. She is “present” like no phone could ever be.

When I invited friends over for dinner and to meet Alexa, they paid little attention to the black cylinder sitting at the table with us. It wasn’t until dessert that I jokingly said to my guests that they were impolite, for they had not acknowledged Alexa. They immediately started talking to her as if she was a real person, or at least as if she was an artificially intelligent being much more intelligent than she actually is. It took a few minutes for them to catch onto the fact that she is not HAL, but a limited domestic robot who only responds to very specific types of requests.

There are other domestic robots similar to Alexa, some with more enhanced features. For example, “Jibo” can turn to look at you, recognize your face and voice, and take pictures. As we give such devices human-like abilities and appearances, we move beyond the so-called internet of “things” and enter the age of the technologically-extended family.




About The Author

John Suler

John Suler is author of Psychology of the Digital Age (2016). He is Professor of Psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center and Honorary Professor at the Royal ...

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