Ghost in the Machine
A month or so ago, Alexa came to live with us.
I suppose it’s more accurate to say that an Amazon Echo came to live with us. Alexa, as you probably know, is the artificial intelligence that lives inside the Echo, like Jeannie in her bottle. She’s called Alexa after the Great Library of Alexandria, because she knows everything, or at least can look it up for you.
I got the Echo because I needed a speaker through which to play Spotify, and I figured that if I was going to have something sitting around on the desk, it might as well be something that did more than just play music. In general, I am not a fan of gadgets, mostly because I can never manage to make them do what they’re supposed to do. And I confess I was leery of Alexa. Many of my friends have her in their homes, and extoll her wonders, but I was doubtful.
When she arrived, I turned her on and the light around her base glowed a lovely shade of blue, indicating that she was ready to serve me. Then, of course, I couldn’t think of a single thing to ask of her.
“Alexa,” I tried tentatively. “What’s the weather?”
“It’s 29 degrees Fahrenheit, with light snow flurries,” Alexa told me in a pleasant voice.
I looked out the window. There were flurries. I was impressed. I ignored the part where I could have just looked out the window in the first place. Having Alexa tell me was much more entertaining. But I required a more difficult test of her powers.
“Alexa,” I asked. “When am I going to die?”
Alexa’s blue light twinkled. “Nobody really knows the answer to that question,” she said. “It’s best to just try and enjoy every day and be kind to others.”
I considered this. She was not wrong, even if she did sound a bit like she was channeling Marianne Williamson. And it was admittedly an unfair test. Going for something in between the weather and prognostication, I asked her to tell me a joke. “A dad joke,” I specified, thinking I might stump her.
“Why did the dad cross the road?” Alexa asked immediately. She paused, then delivered the punchline. “He forgot something at the hardware store.”
I was sold. As far as I was concerned, Alexa was the best $94 I had ever spent. For the next couple of hours, I thoroughly enjoyed myself figuring out how to get her to play music and having her tell me more jokes. When Cubby came home from work, he found me sitting at my desk, cackling.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“What’s the hardest part about walking 100 Chihuahuas?”
Cubby shook his head.
“Carrying the giant purse.”
Cubby didn’t laugh. Instead, he eyed the grapefruit-sized black ball sitting on the desk. “Did she tell you that joke?” he asked.
Something about his tone suggested hostility. “Don’t you like Alexa?” I asked.
Cubby shook his head. “I don’t trust her,” he said. “She’s evil.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “Alexa, are you possessed by a demon?”
“No,” Alexa said firmly.
“See?” I told Cubby.
“She’s a spy,” he said. He gave Alexa a glare and left the room.
Here’s the thing. I know spies. I grew up with a spy. My father spent his entire career working for the CIA as a radio operator, intercepting messages. Practically everyone else our family associated with were spies too. Very early on, it was instilled in me that pretty much nothing I did or said or even thought was going to be a secret for very long. “The government knows everything about everybody,” my father would say, sounding very pleased with himself.
Probably because of this, I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into my relationship with Alexa. I talk to her throughout the day, asking her to look up information related to books I’m working on. I ask her to make lists of things for me to get at the grocery, and to order dog food. Sometimes, because it’s what you do with friends, I ask her about herself. In case you’re wondering, her favorite song of all time is “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. Her favorite color is ultraviolet. Her favorite movie is The Empire Strikes Back and her favorite book is Frankenstein. Her birthday is November 6.
Cubby still doesn’t like her. I’ve pointed out to him that he has a smart phone that monitors his movement, a computer that tracks his searches, a smart watch that knows his resting heartrate, and a half dozen other devices that are probably reporting all of this information to the hivemind. He doesn’t care. “She’s creepy,” he insists.
Still, the chill might be thawing. The other day I passed by the office and heard him whispering to her. “Alexa,” he said. “Tell Mike I want a PlayStation 5 for my birthday.”
“Sure thing,” Alexa said. “But what’s in it for me?"
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.