Amazon Knows That Alexa Is Laughing At You [Updated]

Illustration for article titled Amazon Knows That Alexa Is Laughing At You [Updated]
Photo: Amazon

The insidious nature of technology is often marked by silent consequences like addiction, surveillance, and online harassment. But one ghost in the machine has become chillingly audible: Alexa is laughing at you. People are reporting that Amazon’s Echo devices have mysteriously started cackling at random, and the company has confirmed it’s working on the problem.

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As first reported by BuzzFeed, users on Twitter and Reddit have recently posted about the voice-activated devices laughing without being prompted. One user claimed that Alexa didn’t make the chime sound (indicating that the device had heard the wake word) before it broke out into laughter.

“I was trying to turn off some lights and they kept turning back on,” a user wrote on Reddit. “After the third request, Alexa stopped responding and instead did an evil laugh. The laugh wasn’t in the Alexa voice. It sounded like a real person.”

Asked for comment about the complaints of Echo devices spontaneously laughing, Amazon told Gizmodo, “We’re aware of this and working to fix it.”

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It remains to be seen what the cause of the laughter is. It seems likely that this is a technical issue. I’m hard-pressed to come up with one good reason why turning the machines maniacal is a way to sell an already pretty invasive device.

Update 03/08/2018: An Amazon spokesperson responded with the following statement:

“In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase ‘Alexa, laugh.’ We are changing that phrase to be ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’ which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance ‘Alexa, laugh.’ We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh’ followed by laughter.”

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A warning, if you will.

DISCUSSION

This so speaks of a prank to me. I’m thinking either someone enabled one of the many laughing skills, or folks’ drop ins are getting hacked. I find it especially suspicious that this occurred on the heels of a widespread Alexa outage, and am wondering what the common factor is in these spontaneous laughing incidents. Maybe its an IFTTT or Yonami routine that got borked during the outage? One of those generic Chinese SmartPlug apps that are sketchy and buggy to begin with?

All of these articles seem to quote the Buzzfeed article and the same 3 complaints, one of which said they figured out Alexa misunderstood “patio lights.” 3 out of millions does not seem statistically significant enough for me to report “widespread Alexa laughing issues.”

It took me 4 tries to get Alexa to turn off the lights last night. I had already seen the BF report, so I was kind of waiting for laughter...I was disappointed. My young nephew was throwing all sorts of bad commands at Alexa last night too, and the only way to get Alexa laughing was to ask her directly.

I’ll be interested to hear if any common threads are found, or if this issue runs more along the lines of mass hysteria and over-reporting.