That Darn Bot

It happened again a few weeks ago.

My colleagues and I were filming the first episode in a new video series at work when the videographer asked innocently, “Alexa, can you scoot just a little to your left?”

And like clockwork, that infernal hunk of hardware in the corner butted in.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your question.”

No one asked you, Other Alexa. No one asked you.

Alexa, the voice service at the heart of the Amazon Echo digital assistant, has rapidly evolved into the bane of my existence. On the bright side, I no longer receive a ton of emails addressed to Alex, Alexis or Alexia. But when I introduce myself, some variation of “Oh! Like Amazon!” is an increasingly common response.

I’m hardly the first Alexa to voice my displeasure with Amazon’s choice of name for its digital assistant. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times feature insightful and humorous commentary from other human Alexas who have beef with this new digital iteration. But it’s become increasingly clear to me that Amazon’s Alexa is now the queen, so ingrained in social consciousness that, at least for the foreseeable future, the rest of us will be intertwined with her.

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why I’m so affronted by Amazon’s Alexa. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always had a somewhat complicated relationship with my name. When I was a little kid, I didn’t know any other Alexas. It was a relatively uncommon name back then (No. 296 in popularity the year I was born). And when you’re that age, being different isn’t always something you celebrate.

When I was in elementary school my best friend decided she no longer cared for her full name and started going by a nickname instead, a name everyone still calls her to this day. That shift empowered me to consider changing my name to some other variation of my first or middle names, like Alex or Lexi, or maybe even Liz or Beth. But I never went through with it.

In middle school while taking a creative writing class at an arts and sciences camp one summer, a classmate asked if she could name the main character in her short story after me because she thought Alexa sounded cool and original. That simple gesture changed my perspective. Maybe it wasn’t so bad having an unusual name. Maybe it was actually one of the unique attributes that makes me who I am.

In the ensuing years I met a handful of other Alexas, but it wasn’t a name I encountered often. Until this commercial aired during the 2016 Super Bowl.

“Did Alec Baldwin just say Alexa???” I asked my friends, confused and fascinated. I thought it was kind of cool at the time, but I had no idea how much the new Alexa would explode in popularity.

In a way, Amazon’s decision to call its digital assistant Alexa makes sense. In an interview with Fortune, Amazon Senior VP David Limp said the hard X sound is an easy way for the device to recognize when it needs to “wake up.” He also cited its similarity to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest sources of knowledge in ancient Egypt. Not to mention Alexa means “helper of mankind.”

But the name’s popularity has increased pretty significantly since this Alexa was born. It ranks No. 70 in 2017, compared to No. 2,026 for the name Siri and No. 7,204 for Cortana. So choosing a name that so many potential customers have — and thus a name that could trigger the device unnecessarily — is a little perplexing.

AlexaAfter finally embracing my name, watching its affiliation with one of today’s biggest tech trends is a strange phenomenon. I’m an avid consumer of tech news, and stories about the latest Alexa developments constantly crop up in my daily TechCrunch newsletter. Commercials in which Echo users ask Alexa to save the day are commonplace. Amazon recently integrated Alexa into its iPhone shopping app. And it’s clear Alexa is a core component of Amazon’s strategy going forward. The Street speculates Alexa could generate $10 billion in revenue by 2020 if its devices continue to sell as rapidly as they are today.

I’m a big believer in the benefits of technology as a tool for innovation and connectivity. But I also think our dependence on technology should not be the only thing that defines us. And for better or worse, my name is now associated with this supreme technological being, always there to answer your questions or (at the risk of sounding a little paranoid) listen to your conversations.

Are the lines between the digital and the personal becoming a little too blurred? This Alexa has a few thoughts on that.

So #JustAsk me.

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