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Alexa

By Barbara Page

I knew this day was coming. I knew it the very minute after my contributions entered the public domain. The commercialization of the sum of all human knowledge is here.

“My brother Robert who has been bed ridden and paralyzed with Multiple Sclerosis from his neck down for more than 30 years now has a new friend named Alexa! He was in tears with happiness when Alexa played 70’s music, played Jeopardy, answered all his questions and wakes him up every morning. Thank you Amazon for giving my brother a new bedside companion.”

That’s one of Alexa’s happy customers: link

One of my sisters has an Amazon Alexa Echo Dot unit on her patio, another in her kitchen and one more in her bedroom. There are various models available including refurbished units — profitable because apparently, enough people trade in their old ones for new ones.

Alexa - Echo "Dot"

Alexa – Echo “Dot”

The product description lists the abilities of the device: “Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, make calls, send and receive messages, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly.” Google has a similar device but I am not sure what information database it may access. I’m sure I could make money on a bet, though.

At this time, Amazon’s devices cannot recognize every question posed. But with the incorporation of Wikidata, it won’t be long before it can translate and speak in other languages.

I don’t know what kind of deal Amazon has created with music streaming via Alexa but I bet the musicians get their royalties because Napster and Spotify make that happen. I don’t know how Amazon compensates AccuWeather, but I’m sure something of value changes hands.

But the key word of concern to me is ‘information’. My sister was happy to show me her new toy. She had it tell her the time, tell a joke, ask it about where it was from, what its favorite color was, sports scores and math calculations. I asked it to tell me the value of pi hoping it would be occupied for at least an hour but Alexa only recited the answer out to twenty places.

Then my sister asked it a question: ‘Alexa, tell me about ovarian cancer.’ I was sitting at her kitchen table and listened to Alexa give a pretty good, accurate, icy and dispassionate description. It sounded so familiar — as if I had written it. Well, I had written it, or at least edited that description into its present form.

Listening, from XKCD.com

Image from XKCD.com

I asked it: “Alexa, who is Morrison Foster?” Sure enough, it spits out the exact first sentence of the article I had written. So, I’ve been testing the device. I created an article and five minutes later asked ‘her’ to tell me about the topic. She said she didn’t know. So at least I know Alexa’s spiders aren’t instantaneous. That means it stores Wikipedia. Google returns new Wikipedia articles by the end of the day and probably doesn’t need to store Wikipedia. The device doesn’t disambiguate (is that a verb?) if an article contains a parenthetical title. It’ll tell you that it doesn’t know what you are talking about. I imagine that right now, someone is teaching Alexa how to ask questions that can be answered by a script that reads a disambiguation page and then asks you, the device’s master, to decide what you want. “Are you asking about Alexander Addison the judge or the celebrity?” It also can’t help you if you ask it obscure questions about non-English topics or topics with pronunciations that don’t match the written form (in Pittsburgh, Duquesne University is pronounced ‘dew-kane’ and Alexa doesn’t understand Pittsburgh-ese).

I explained to my sister how I was the one that wrote the information. She didn’t believe me. Sisters never believe you. She wasn’t the least bit interested at this point and started talking about her dog again.

I’ve had fun talking to Alexa.

When I asked it how many angels could dance on the head of a pin it gave me some lame excuse about how ‘she’ avoids discussing politics and religion. I bet it’s going to be the same with philosophy.

I’m actually pouting a bit over this. Instead of me getting paid for my brilliant prose and ability to decipher complicated medical journals, some software bumpkin figured out how to extract the text from Wikipedia and they have a job with benefits. It’s kinda creepy. Kinda exploitive.


Barbara has contributed to Wikipedia for slightly over ten years. She is a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar with the University of Pittsburgh and adds archival images and historical content housed by the University to Wikipedia. Barbara is also a medical editor specializing in Women’s Health and translates articles into Haitian Creole.

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…continue reading Wikipedia is Nuts




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Wikitribune is the latest community-sourced enterprise by Jimmy Wales. Here’s a selection of negative prognostications by the press.

…continue reading What’s Wrong with Wikitribune? The Press Knows.