We should be careful about becoming too reliant on Siri or Alexa

As I battle with my own rebellious smart speaker, I’m reminded why I’m never going to let smart assistants dictate my life

James Moore
Saturday 05 March 2022 19:27
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<p>‘Kimi’ is a thriller concerning a sinister rival to Alexa, Siri or Hey Google </p>

‘Kimi’ is a thriller concerning a sinister rival to Alexa, Siri or Hey Google

In search of escape at the end of the day, I tuned in to to Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, currently streaming on Sky.

I found a fine techno-thriller concerning a sinister rival to Alexa, Siri or Hey Google (the tech giants’ virtual assistants) with shades of Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window thrown in for good measure – in a good way, in contrast with Netflix’s disastrous Razzie-fest The Woman in the Window.

The score, by Cliff Martinez, did its job in ramping up the tension when required. I’m fond of his work, so I turned to Amazon’s Alexa (I know, I have one of the smart speakers, I’m not proud of that fact) to give Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) a night-time listen.

Now, the USP of Alexa’s fictional rival (eponymously named Kimi) is that it has human operators listening in to your conversations, to “correct” Kimi’s imperfections and mistakes and thus help it learn to function more effectively. Bear that in mind, because you can probably guess what’s coming.

Me: Alexa. Play Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez.

Alexa: Here is Solaris (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez on Amazon Music.

Me: Wait, WTF? Alexa STOP. I said play Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez.

Alexa: Here is Solaris (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez on Amazon Music.

Me: Alexa STOP. Play Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez.

Alexa: Here is some music by Cliff Martinez on Amazon Music.

Me: Sod it, I’ll manually put it in a playlist and call it Soundtrack K. There. Now, Alexa, play Soundtrack K.

Alexa: I cannot find Soundtrack K in your music library.

Me: [banging head hard against wall]: Arrrgh, arrrgh, arrrgh.

Alexa: I cannot find “Arrrgh, arrrgh, arrrgh” in your music library.

Me [sometime later after calming down]: Hmm. Maybe I’ve got to be cute about this. Alexa, play the latest album by Cliff Martinez.

Alexa: Playing Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Cliff Martinez on Amazon Music.

Me: [Bangs head against door. But more slowly and with less force.]

Tech thrillers have never really gone out of fashion, because there is such a rich and fertile seam to be mined in the behaviour of big tech. In a case of life imitating art, we have started to learn how sinister tech companies can be in real life. But also how crap. Sinister and crap. You can have both.

The fictional Kimi isn’t that, because, of course, crap isn’t very cinematic. It runs Zoe Kravitz’s home with admirable efficiency, and every time her character gives it an instruction it gets it right, even though she’s one of the operators whose job it is to correct its screw-ups. That is until (of course) she hears something she shouldn’t on one of the recordings she is sent. Kravitz can do what she wants, but I’ve no intention of following her lead.

There is no way I am letting Alexa, or Siri, or whoever, operate a damn thing in my home. If Alexa can’t even play Kimi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), it’s sure as hell not running my heating, turning my lights on or anything else. And before you say it’s about “accents”, no, it’s not that.

It’s true, I’m an oik. A state-schooled council-house kid, so the glass isn’t cut when I speak. But my accent, such as it is, is pretty bland. The producers on the radio and TV programmes I’ve appeared on have never raised it as an issue. I suppose we should be thankful. In Mother/Android – another, albeit much less accomplished, tech thriller on Netflix – the Siris and Alexas have been turned into full-size android servants.

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One of the few good bits in that movie is when a jarring, ear-splitting signal is carried through mobile phones, turning the androids into murderous terminator Putins, which proceed to make a bloodbath of a Christmas party and then the rest of the world.

You don’t need to worry about that happening with Alexa. It would probably hear “kill all humans” as “kiss all humans”. Or maybe it would just play Aqua’s Barbie Girl 100 times. Actually, that might kill all humans. I think I might prefer grappling with a murderous psychopathic death robot. But here’s the thing: the crapness of these things is by turns funny, and by turns infuriating, until it’s not.

There was once an Alexa ad featuring a blind woman asking it for the weather forecast, which I guess could be handy if she didn’t already have a radio or a screen reader. But what if Alexa were to get it wrong? And what if it were to get some other instruction wrong, greeting you with either an ice box or an inferno upon your arrival home because the heating orders got misinterpreted? Google the record of driverless cars if you need a real-life example (please note, before Amazon’s PR people ring me up in a tizzy to tell me that of course Alexa couldn’t leave me up the creek – or in a sauna – I’m just spit-balling here).

The point is that we could easily let ourselves become reliant on these things, just like Kravitz’s character in the movie. Their creators have too much power – both personal and political – as it is. That’s before we even get started on the question of them listening in on us, and the ever-changing terms and conditions nobody reads, and the ongoing debate about privacy and whether we can rely on them to pay due regard to that (we can’t). These are all issues Kimi explores. Perhaps it, and Alexa’s incompetence in finding a soundtrack, should serve as a modest wake-up call.

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