You might want to unplug your Amazon Alexa speaker before it has a dangerous influence on your children.
Digital assistants are supposed to provide helpful answers and suggestions, but when asked by a 10-year-old girl for a challenge, Amazon’s Alexa gave her a potentially lethal response.
Instead of suggesting a lighthearted game or physical activity, Alexa told the girl to play with a live wall outlet, as her mom, Kristin Livdahl, described in a Twitter thread.
“The challenge is simple,” said Alexa. “Plug in a phone charger about halfway into a wall outlet, then touch a penny to the exposed prongs.”
These instructions could have caused serious harm had the 10-year-old not known better or if her parent hadn’t been around. That’s because (as you might have learned as a child), inserting metals that are good conductors into a socket can cause electric shocks or start fires.
Amazon responded to Luvdahl’s concerned tweet a day later, asking her to reach out directly so it could investigate. The retail giant eventually fixed the issue, telling Indy100:
“Customer trust is at the center of everything we do and Alexa is designed to provide accurate, relevant, and helpful information to customers,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “As soon as we became aware of this error, we took swift action to fix it.”
Amazon didn’t specify why its digital assistant provided life-threatening instructions to a young girl, but it’s important to know that Alexa doesn’t pull answers out of thin air. The assistant is only as smart as the internet, and this time, its response was taken from an ourcommunitynews.com post describing a challenge that circulated around social media about a year ago.
The so-called “Outlet Challenge” dared easily-influenced teens to insert a coin into a wall outlet. As is so often the case with these brain-dead internet challenges, at least a few people followed the dangerous instructions. It got to a point where the Massachusetts police sent out a warning after two teenagers, who faced arson charges, scorched outlets at their high school.
Some folks may wonder why anyone would own Alexa products in the first place given their track record for invading your privacy. Livdahl says she received an Echo as a gift and asked the device for a suggestion after the weather got too cold to continue doing physical challenges from a PE teacher on YouTube.
Taking the advice of a friendly Twitter user, Livdahl says she will enable the kids mode on her Echo so she has more control over the satanic speaker.
It’s troubling that something so dangerous could come from the mouth of a product released by one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Clearly, Amazon’s algorithms aren’t doing a good enough job of vetting the information they grab from various online sources. And that isn’t the case with other personal assistants.
When I asked the Google Assistant for a challenge, it presented fun thought exercises that seem to be custom responses rather than something pulled from a random website. Here are a few of Google’s challenges.
“You’ve found a magic movie ticket that lets you become a character in any movie, but it’s a one-way ticket. Pick your movie and character.”
“Your superpower wasn’t super enough to join any superhero squads, but you still love it. Describe your power, and come up with a story where it saves the day.”
“You get to create a new national holiday! On what date does it falls, what is it called, and what does it celebrate?”
If privacy concerns weren’t enough to persuade you against using Amazon’s voice assistant, perhaps its ability to disseminate harmful, even deadly, information will make you pull the plug on Alexa.