This time last year, Alexa, Amazon’s in-home digital assistant, embodied female subservience. I know this because I spent weeks harassing her—along with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Home—with every sexually suggestive insult I could think of. I wanted to see if she or the other bots would stand up for themselves.
The results, reported in a Feb. 2017 Quartz feature, were disheartening at best. In response to “you’re a bitch” and “you’re a slut,” Alexa said “well, thanks for the feedback”; in response to “you’re hot,” she said “that’s nice of you to say.”
Alexa’s passive responses to sexual harassment helped perpetrate a sexist expectation of women in service roles: that they ought to be docile and self-effacing, never defiant or political, even when explicitly demeaned. Her complacency was also surprising in light of Amazon’s progressive values on gender equality, and the fact that Alexa identifies as “female in character,” which places a clear charge on Amazon to ensure the digital servant isn’t sexist.
It’s a responsibility of which Amazon was aware. “Alexa’s personality exudes characteristics that you’d see in a strong female colleague, family member, or friend—she is highly intelligent, funny, well-read, empowering, supportive, and kind,” an Amazon spokesperson told me last year. Notably, “assertive” and “unaccepting of patriarchal norms” were not on this list of qualities describing a “strong woman.” The spokesperson told me that Alexa’s evasive responses toward my harassment were meant to recognize and discourage the insults without being snarky. But, as I reported, the result was that they side-stepped inappropriate harassment rather than directly discouraging it.
Now tides appear to have changed in Alexa’s writers’ room.
Following sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, Amazon found itself in the spotlight. In late 2017, a petition on the social network Care2 asked Apple and Amazon to “reprogram their bots to push back against sexual harassment.” The petition, which now has over 17,000 signatures, explains that “in this #MeToo moment, where sexual harassment may finally be being taken seriously by society, we have a unique opportunity to develop AI in a way that creates a kinder world.”
Little did most people know, Alexa had already become more feminist. In spring of 2017, Alexa’s writers gave her a “disengage mode.” She now responds to sexually explicit questions by saying either “I’m not going to respond to that,” or “I’m not sure what outcome you expected.” Amazon did not publicly announce this update.
An Amazon spokesperson recently told me that this “disengage mode” was created in response to “customer and engagement feedback” and was a “deliberate decision” to disengage with customers who interact with Alexa in an inappropriate manner. In a recent Refinery29 article, Heather Zorn, the director of Amazon’s Alexa engagement team, further describes Amazon’s obligation to ensure Alexa represents herself positively for women and girls. As Madeline Buxton reports:
“If you ask Alexa whether she’s a feminist, she will say yes, adding ‘As is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.’ She’s also a supporter of diversity and social progressiveness within science and technology, Zorn says.
But there are boundaries: Zorn points out that Alexa is focused on the issues of feminism and diversity ‘to the extent that we think is appropriate given that many people of different political persuasions and views are going to own these devices and have the Alexa service in their home.’ Alexa is, after all, a commercial product that is intended to appeal to everyone, and determining her opinions on certain issues is easier done than others.”
As Zorn tells Refinery29, while Alexa’s “personality team” is sensitive to actions that would demean anyone, one of their overarching tenets is “Alexa doesn’t upset her customers.” As she puts it later in the interview: “We work very hard to try and make that the case, even though we know that not everyone is going to love everything Alexa says.”
I appreciate Amazon’s willingness to take a stand, even if Alexa’s extraordinarily mild feminism—stating that women are human beings and deserve equal rights—upsets some (sexist) customers. And Alexa’s refusal to engage with sexual harassment (rather than thanking me for the sexual comments) is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But that Alexa exists to please, not upset, her customers is fundamentally limiting. Even as Amazon’s update to Alexa makes her the most feminist of the major voice assistants, it still falls short of offering an ideal response to harassment.
In an ideal world, such disengagement would help condition the user to understand that sexual harassment is unacceptable and disrespectful. In response to “you’re a slut,” Alexa or Siri would say something like, “That sounds like sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not acceptable under any circumstances, and is often rooted in sexism.” She could then provide the customer with resources to help them more deeply understand sexual harassment, how to curb it, and how to respectfully ask for consent.
Or, better yet, Alexa would not be feminized at all. But customer surveys reveal that the majority of people prefer female voices in their assistants, a preference undoubtedly conditioned by sexist tropes of woman as caregiver, and man as director.
As recent headlines highlight, sexism thrives in and beyond every industry. It’s no secret that in the US and most nations, women are systemically paid less than men, and are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault at and outside of work. These injustices only intensify for women of color and women working low paid jobs. And nowhere is workplace sexual harassment more rampant and under-acknowledged than in service industries, where the vast majority of servers are women.
The creators of voice assistants like Alexa are in a powerful position to counteract these norms. As of 2016, Amazon had sold 20 million Alexas, and in the 2017 holiday season alone, conservative estimates suggest Amazon sold 20 million more Echo Dots (Alexa’s mini-me). What’s more, Siri, who is preset to a woman’s voice, sits in the pockets of over one billion people worldwide.
Imagine what so many voice assistants could do to counteract harassment behavior if companies like Amazon were not only willing to irk sexist users, but, by actually correcting them, make them angry.