Soon, Alexa Might Be as Dumb as Your Neighbourhood Troll

By Victoria Song on at

The next time you ask Alexa a question, the answer could come from some rando with an internet connection. Amazon is publicly launching its Alexa Answers programme, a way for the company to crowdsource answers for questions Alexa doesn’t have a response for.

Alexa Answers was initially introduced in December to a small invite-only beta group. The difference is now literally anyone can contribute answers. Me, you, your neighbour Gary. Anyone. If you opt into the program, you’ll be asked to browse questions that “match your interest or expertise.” From there, you can provide an answer that Alexa will then share, citing the source as “according to an Amazon customer.” Amazon is also gamifying the process. Those who participate will also get a dashboard with access to stats, such as how many answers they’ve contributed, how their answers were rated, and how many times their answers have been shared by Alexa.

Here are some examples of questions stumping Alexa:

  • How many birds migrate?
  • What is Juniper syrup?
  • Where is the most snowfall?
  • Where was the world’s largest wave surfed?
  • How long does it take for an ice cube tray to freeze?
  • What states surround Illinois?
  • What’s the proper amount of sleep?
  • How many instruments does Stevie Wonder play?
  • How much is in a handle of alcohol?

It’s hard to imagine that anyone actually knows the answer to most of these questions off the top of their head. Chances are participants are just going to google the answer before punching it in. And according to a Fast Company report, Amazon isn’t requiring citations for the source people use to find their answers. So, on the one hand, this is probably a crowdsourced workaround for Amazon which doesn’t have the massive search engine capabilities of say, Google Assistant. On the other hand, there’s no stopping potential trolls from trying to spam the program with joke answers. Aside from the dubious call of leadership board glory, what other incentive do people have to do Amazon’s work for free than the opportunity to introduce chaos?

“We’re leaning into the positive energy and good faith of the contributors, and we use machine learning and algorithms to weed out the noisy few, the bad few. But we’re not going to suppress the magical experience we can give to 99 customers because one person had something different in mind,” Bill Barton, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa information, told Fast Company.

Um, okay. Sure. Because algorithms have never failed. In any case, the next time Alexa answers your question “according to an Amazon customer,” maybe just look it up on your phone instead. [Fast Company]

Featured image: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

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