When You Call A.I. By Name

The Quiet Story Underneath Amazon's Alexa

Dale Carnegie famously said there is no sweeter sound to someone than the sound of his or her own name.

This probably has something to do with why songs in which an artist sings about their own name have routinely been career-making hits.

There’s something to it.

We care so much about names, we even make songs about THINGS having names!

And even these songs turn into hits!

Today, there are approximately 100,000 people, located within the United States alone, named Alexa. (Including roughly 50 who are Amazon employees!)

When Amazon named its new voice assistant ‘Alexa’ in 2014, it brought about the end of the use of the name for newborns. Usage in the US dropped by half from 2015 to 2018, while usage in the UK plummeted to near zero.

Consider:

Google didn’t name Google Assistant after a person.

Samsung named its voice assistant Bixby because it is phonetically distinct.

Not nearly as many people are named Siri - just 20 girls, in 2017.

Same for Cortana, Microsoft’s assistant.

So Alexa stands alone as a potential offender, among big tech.

Lauren Johnson was just another Amazon customer, until her daughter, Alexa, began getting bullied in school over her name.

The problem got bad enough to where she wrote Jeff Bezos and any Amazon employee who would listen an open letter back in 2018.

The problem has remained despite the ability to change Alexa’s wake word to “Amazon,” “Echo,” or the Star Trek-inspired “computer.”

Lauren and her daughter have found common cause on social media, discovering others who have been negatively impacted by Amazon’s decision to name their voice AI “Alexa.”

But the true depth of the impact is felt a bit more upon reading the Reddit thread on the subject, which I would describe as mostly sympathetic to the cause.

(One person named Jake did humorously lament how he routinely gets called ‘Jake from State Farm.’)

The general sense is that expecting Amazon to change Alexa’s name to something else, at this point six years into the release of the voice assistant, and hundreds of millions of dollars in expense in advertising and development, is unrealistic.

In Amazon’s defense - which they have stated multiple times publicly - they named Alexa after the Library of Alexandria, and gave it a female voice and persona after conducting studies indicating consumers would prefer this.

The problem is that when Amazon made these decisions, even they likely couldn’t have foreseen the cultural phenomenon that Alexa would become.

Even Chipotle felt sympathy for people named Alexa, giving Echo Dots to all of their reward members sharing the name.

If a random restaurant can do this, it’s right to ask why Amazon couldn’t throw these folks a bone and at least acknowledge the situation they’ve created.

What are the ethics of naming an AI with a human name?

How do those ethics change, based on what the human intentions for that AI are?

If we name an AI that manages kitchen appliances “Lucy,” or if we name an AI that manages money “Rothschild,” or an AI which manages operations of heavy weaponry Rambo, are those names better or worse than technological words with no human name recognition?

How many people need to be impacted before it matters what we name an AI?

Is anything fair game?

Is all of this big tech’s sole decision to make?

There’s no sweeter sound than the sound of someone’s name.

That is, unless that name is repeated millions of times, spoken to computers.

You know what we call that?

A sweet sound to a trillion-dollar-company.


Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.

Maya Angelou



Subscribe to This Week In Voice VIP - the daily letter to the voice technology and AI communities around the world.

Have a friend? Gift ‘em This Week In Voice VIP. Make their day, and ours.

Give a gift subscription

Discounts for This Week In Voice VIP subscribers:

DBW Global is the (virtual) gathering of the wide world of publishing, taking place September 14-16.

Project Voice 2021 is the #1 event for voice tech and AI in America. In person, in April 2021, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Use the promo code to save.