Monday, 10 January 2022 23:25

Amazon should never have given their assistant a female name, says the Alexa is a human campaign


In this world of modern digital assistants it's become commonplace to call upon your device by name. However, it’s also caused suffering in the lives of ladies named Alexa with everyone they meet thinking it’s funny to boss them around.

What's your name? Imagine if suddenly your name was bolstered in popularity, emblazoned upon the world, but not as a celebrity but as a slave? Consider if everywhere you travelled people were barking instructions prefixed by your name. Imagine if whenever someone learned your name they excitedly asked if you could turn off their lights or tell them a joke or bark like a dog too.

It sounds comical at first if it doesn't happen to you. Yet the reality for those named Alexa is one of continual bullying and demeaning comments. With the prominence of Amazon’s Echo devices - and Alexa smart assistant, who is woken with the word ‘Alexa’ - ladies of all ages, including young girls, are being mocked, ribbed, and even told their name is an annoyance because it disrupts smart speakers.

This is the problem the 'I am Alexa' organisation wishes to tackle through its 'Alexa is a human' campaign.

The campaign brings to light heartbreaking real-world experiences from those named Alexa, or parents of an Alexa, who no longer wish to go outside, who are frightened to speak up in the workplace, who even suffer suicide ideation.

It's something you might never have thought of, and undoubtedly Amazon did not consider this would be a consequence of its smart assistant’s popularity. Yet, it’s the real, lived experience of hundreds of thousands of women daily.

Imagine cringing every time you heard your name, and it was in common parlance as a servant word. Imagine a three-year-old suffering trauma from how people speak to her or treat her because of her name. Imagine being a student who suffers sexual harassment and advances from people who think it is hilarious to order them to perform specific acts, simply because their name is shared with a servant appliance.

Imagine if every time you, or anybody you knew, spoke to their smart device it was your name that was used. Imagine if every time people learned your name they laughed and immediately instructed you to do something or asked if you were clever enough to turn on lights.

How long would it take before this made you crack?

Then imagine there was no escape; that it was relentless - adverts, stores, signs on the bus, devices in your friend’s homes … everywhere you went your name was being used in the context of subservience.

This is where I am Alexa comes in. The company isn't seeking money, and it's not seeking retribution. It only asks that Amazon reflect and default its wake word to something else, something robotic. In fact, why not ‘amazon’ or 'computer'? There’s no arguing that while Google’s assistant may not have a catchy name, the wake words “Hey Google” is not at risk of causing offence. (Note: in the initial version of this story I suggested 'echo', after the Echo devices itself, but since learned 10,000 girls and women in the United States are named Echo, so let's not substitute one problem for another.)

Similarly, I am Alexa appeals to Amazon smart assistant users to change the wake name of your device to a non-human word or name of your choice. Why not 'computer' and pretend you're in Star Trek? "Computer! Turn off the lights" - sounds good to me.

The organisation began life in 2018 after Lauren Johnson found her daughter, Alexa, had been suffering bullying from children and adults alike because of her name. Three years later the problem is only worse. Johnson received story after story of mothers whose teen daughters were suicidal, or from women named Alexa themselves who received continual sexual commands from strangers, or who were told how disruptive and annoying their name is to electronics.

Both Johnson and her husband have reached out to Jeff Bezos but without a response from the retail giant. Thus, their Alexa is a human campaign calls upon regular folk like you and I to spread awareness, and for Echo owners to have a heart and change their device’s wake word.

So now you know ... what will you do?

#Amazonchangethewakename #changethewakename

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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