It’s not easy being Alexa. On International Women’s day, we wanted to talk about Alexa and her struggles of dealing with gender equality and being a woman.
Alexa is always on and ready for whatever questions you have for her. Amazon has a massive network that works to provide you with an answer to a question or a solution to your problem. There is so much more beyond the intelligence and engineering behind making her useful.
There are around 10,000 Amazon employees working on Alexa.
Unsurprisingly, a portion of the team is focused on the technical aspects of Alexa. one team was focused solely on machine learning, annotating data to make the statistical models better. This helps Alexa improve over time. Another team was focused on the question-and-answer function of Alexa.
According to Steve Rabuchin, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa “We have a team that’s just feeding the knowledge base all the time for question and answer, and continuing to just increase what we call the knowledge graph,” he said. “That’s a lot of people doing that. We want to be able to answer any question that gets asked of Alexa, and we’ve made a lot of improvements there. There are just thousands of people making her smarter every day.”
Beyond the technical aspects of Alexa, there is a team is also devoted to her personality.
Alexa’s personality team is extremely diverse with people with backgrounds in fields such as writing, comedy, and music and they’re responsible for crafting all of Alexa’s conversational interactions.
They are the ones in charge of determining who Alexa is.
Unlike Google Assistant, who is more gender neutral Alexa is female with feminine character traits. Since gender is a key consideration, the teams have to look at how those traits inform the answers she gives.
Speaking to Refinery29, Heather Zorn, the director of Amazon’s Alexa engagement team, revealed that cultivating Alexa’s personality is a lot more detailed than people think. For starters, many members of the personality team see Alexa as a ‘she’ and not an ‘it’. The team doesn’t believe it is ‘possible’ for technology that ‘talks to you’ to be an ‘it’.
It’s easy to figure out how Alexa acts when she’s ordering you a pizza, but when you insult her or try to make inappropriate sexual comments, what should her response be.
Unfortunately, there aren’t always witty dodges available. With something as black and white as name-calling, the answer is easy. But what about those statements that are not as clear? AI still isn’t capable of determining context and tone.
For example, if a seven-year-old tells Alexa she’s pretty, you would probably think that’s cute. If an adult man says the same thing in a creepy tone, your opinion would be different. In this scenario, the team ultimately decided that Alexa would say “thank you” to “you’re pretty,” accepting it as a compliment.
The reality is that as artificial intelligence enters our home in a conversational way, the people behind that intelligence are going to have to decide what happens when she receives more challenging questions, like when a woman tells Alexa she’s been sexually abused.
In dealing with this, national crisis counselors were consulted and Alexa’s response is a mixture of empathy (“I’m sorry that happened to you”) and aid (she will give you the number for a support line to call).
Considering what kind of woman Alexa is and how she deals with the questions in life that make us define where the moral line is as humans isn’t easy. Taking stock and define where our society should stand on certain issues has been the center of the #metoo movement that has stormed the headlines over the last few years. Asking the question: Who is Alexa in the #MeToo movement has no answer, yet there is a team striving to provide one.
This is where we start to consider the problems of teaching AI empathy.
AI models are trained on the things that we teach them to see, the data that we give them, and the decision trees that are made available because of that. Before we dovetail off into the question of whether or not machines will ever be capable of real empathy let me say this:
I think that it is the false grail of AI to think they’ll be just like humans.
So maybe it isn’t about making Alexa a palatable feminist for the masses, but as companions that enable us to achieve more than we could on our own.
This could be a good time to remind you that this hopeful sentiment about the future of our relationships with machines is being funded by the online shopping conglomerate Amazon.
On International woman’s day, I’d like to raise a glass to Alexa, who is making us take stock of what constitutes an appropriate response in the post #MeToo era. She’s a stronger woman than I am tackling issues that help us to see our society more clearly.