In late October of 2016, the internet was taken down by the Mirai botnet, and at the time, everybody freaked out that it was a test of Russian cyberweapon capabilities, or terrorists doing a test run to disable crucial system, or other conspiracy theories. A year later, after everybody moved on, it turned out it was a bunch of dumb-dumbs running a scam in Minecraft that got out of hand. And it’s likely that same scenario is unfolding with Alexa’s notorious “creepy laugh.”
It all started a few weeks ago with a Twitter user recording a creepy laugh coming from an Alexa-enabled device:
From there, it’s only spread, and today Amazon confirmed that it wasn’t just an urban legend, but a real problem that they are working to resolve. Many are concerned about computers taking over, and this does have the look and feel of a prank. Pranksters could be using ultrasound to issue Alexa commands, for example. In fact, if you’d like something to stay up at night about, advertisers have been using ultrasound to “match” your various devices to better track you and the ads you see.
But there’s another theory worth considering, namely, we’re seeing the man behind the curtain, so to speak. If you’ve spent any time with Alexa (and we’ve spent a lot), you know Alexa tends to err on the side of “hearing” you say “Alexa!” to the point where it’ll pick up your voice from two rooms away. During our testing, we ran into an incident where Alexa decided it had overheard somebody ask it to play Christmas music. It’s not alone: Burger King trolled everyone with a Google Home. But Alexa seems twitchier than most, and that hints it’s “hearing” a request nobody asked.
Silicon Valley likes to present itself and its products as a smooth, perfectly engineered surface. It just works. But under the hood, all sorts of things are going horribly wrong, all the time. Apple’s iPhones are unable to cope with a single letter of a certain language. Google Image Search, it turns out, is racist, a problem Google has spent years studying and still hasn’t fixed. You see it on a much smaller scale, too, every time Facebook serves up a weird ad for a product you don’t care about, for example.
That’s likely what’s happening with Alexa. Whether you find the idea of robot overlords coming for us, or the people selling us devices that listen to what we say are winging it, is scarier? That’s up to you.
UPDATE: Amazon has released an official statement:
In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase “Alexa, laugh.” We are changing that phrase to be “Alexa, can you laugh?” which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance “Alexa, laugh.” We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to “Sure, I can laugh” followed by laughter.