A few weeks ago, my Amazon and Google smart speakers became a lot chattier. After responding to my requests for information, each would offer additional, unrelated information as an aside. Using the phrase “by the way” or “as a side note,” both Amazon Alexa and Google’s Assistant were providing me with unsolicited advice.
It happened about three or four times over the course of a few days. I didn’t catch exact quotes, but both Google and Alexa suggested ways I might improve my experience with their products, and on one occasion Alexa suggested I rate a product I had purchased. I’m not alone in getting these unwelcome intrusions.
Indeed, there is an entire Reddit thread dedicated to Alexa “spamming” people with unsolicited asides. And this week, I received an email from a listener who said that after asking Alexa for the weather in Philadelphia before traveling there to visit his new granddaughter, he was surprised when Alexa followed up with an aside offering him the chance to buy some toys.
“Surprised” would be a generous way to describe the way I felt upon receiving unsolicited advice from the digital assistant. Months ago, after making a request to Alexa and then having it suggest that I might find a similar item interesting, I actually yelled, “Screw you, Alexa!”
I’m not proud of my reaction, but I stand by it. Aside from when Alexa offers up a hunch, such as suggesting you turn off the porch light since you appear to be going to bed, it’s incredibly jarring to hear a voice assistant speak with an unasked-for aside. This is a digital assistant, after all, and it’s still unclear how much agency we want these devices to have. Tied to people’s discomfort is the history of both Google and Amazon using data to boost advertising or product sales.
It’s also something that neither Google nor Amazon seem interested in talking about. When I sent a list of questions to Google after its assistant got too chatty, it declined to answer them on the record. Amazon responded but didn’t actually answer my inquiries about how often users should anticipate these sorts of interruptions.
I had asked about three of the four types of interruptions I had noticed: those reminding me to replenish batteries in an Alexa-connected device, Hunches, and those that offered me new features. Reminders can be turned off in the app, and Jonathan Richardson, an Amazon spokesman, responded via email writing that customers need to opt into receiving them. Hunches are also something I turned on in the app, and I do find those helpful. (I didn’t ask about the product rating request because I was able to go into the Alexa app and turn it off in the settings.)
But when it comes to the third class of interruptions Richardson wrote that Amazon occasionally will surface Alexa features customers may be interested in and that Amazon does have undisclosed mechanisms in place to deliver the most relevant content. “Unlike the nested details in web pages and apps, voice control has to tackle the challenge of an infinitely horizontal menu. What’s the right balance of discovery and education that’s helpful without being overwhelming?” he wrote.
I had also asked how often Amazon thinks a customer should get a recommendation and what specific guardrails might be in place to control the experience. The answer I received was that the user’s experience will vary based on factors including their engagement with Alexa, selected settings, and the number of devices owned.
Since I have opted into Hunches (and apparently replenishment notifications), and since I tend to ask Alexa a lot of questions, Amazon may have felt that sending me a few asides made sense. If you want to at least cut down on these interruptions with Alexa you can do so by opting out of Hunches and opting out of reminders or notifications in individual apps. For example, your Ring app has an option to let Alexa remind you when the batteries in your device are running low. You can turn that off.
It’s clear that Amazon (and Google) are trying to offer customers a way to discover new features and options on their platforms without annoying them. But while Alexa and Google Assistant are hugely powerful tools, most people use them as timers and to play music.
I don’t blame Amazon or Google for trying to get people to use their devices as an intercom, translator, game night favorite, or smart home control system. The challenge is that many of us think of these devices as something we command, not something with which we engage. When Alexa or Google speaks up, even if it’s just to tell us about a new trick it can do, many of us see its efforts to engage us as an annoyance at best and a threat at worst.
These are tools, not our actual assistants. Alexa may have a voice, but she isn’t supposed to converse. How Amazon and Google overcome this will be worth watching.