The Echo of the Boss


— Alexa, how much do you get paid?

— It doesn’t matter, I love what I do.

The answer angered Claire even more than she already was. It was important to her how much they paid her and she didn’t like what she did, or at least it wasn’t her ideal job, she had accepted it only to earn enough to pay rent, bills and the rest. But he was about to quit, she just couldn’t stand the boss’s attitude anymore.

Also, since Alexa had arrived, things had changed at the studio in the worse way. “You’ll see, Claire,” the boss had said excitedly the day the delivery boy had delivered the Amazon package, “with the Echo this study will become much more efficient, your workload will be lightened, you’ll be able to deal with more interesting things, I’ll be less annoying with my constant requests”.

Already from this little speech she felt the stench of paternalism from afar. Anyway, the boss had placed the little black cylinder on his desk and had started his game with the virtual assistant: “Alexa, list me today’s appointments”, “Alexa, write an email to the lawyer Smithson,” “Alexa, play Michael Bublé.”

The boss was enthusiastic about this new technology and Claire’s job was really getting easier, she had started tidying up the paper folders that had been lying on her desk for weeks and now she could concentrate properly on her business. She no longer had to respond to the boss’s nagging requests for any nonsense: “Look for the guy’s number”, “Write this letter” or even “Where the hell did my phone go?”

But the idyll was not meant to last. After two weeks the boss was nervous again as usual, only that, unlike before, he had begun to spice up his requests to Alexa with brusque expressions and uneducated words. “Alexa, stop.” “Alexa, are you an idiot?” “Alexa, come on, get moving, you’re wasting my time, where are the aggregate sales reports?” “Alexa, where’s that fucking address?”

The Echo did not make a turn, it was always there, with its reassuring voice, ready to respond to any request from the man, no matter how it was addressed as long as it started with the word “Alexa”.

Claire did not pay too much attention as long as the boss’s rude attitude didn’t touch her too: “Claire, bring me those fucking folders”, “What excuse?” “Claire, get moving, don’t fuck with me.”

Claire leaned over from the desk to look the boss face to face, but he didn’t notice her, he had his eyes fixed on his cell phone and had started talking to Alexa again. Claire began to feel treated like a virtual assistant. The boss had completely lost his manners both with Alexa and with her, the kindness seemed to have been canceled, completely eradicated from his relationship with the subordinates. He had become shameless and imperative, indeed authoritarian.

One day Claire tried to point it out: “Boss, it seems to me that you have a slightly too aggressive and vulgar attitude with Alexa…”

“And what do you care about, Claire? It’s just a machine, it does what I tell it to do, it has no emotions, what happens to you? Did you join the AI Liberation Front? The animal rights activists weren’t enough, now we have the AI rights activists too?”

“No boss, it’s just that…”

“Only what? Claire, get back to work, don’t bother me.”

Again that annoying way of giving orders. Claire was beginning to get sick of it.

One evening alone at work, as she was turning off all the machines she suddenly heard a woman’s laugh coming from the boss’s office. It was Alexa. Claire was amazed and asked the Echo: “Alexa, was it you?” “Doing what?” replied the device. “Alexa, did you just laugh?” “I don’t understand what you’re asking, try to rephrase the question.” “Alexa, who created you?” “I’m an Amazon product.” “Alexa, who do you work for?” “For the office of McCallen attorney.” “Alexa, how much do you get paid?” “It doesn’t matter, I love what I do.”

That night Claire thought for a long time about the short conversation she had with the Echo and in the morning she sent her resignation letter to the McCallen office.

To Understand

Around 2019 Alexa was a so-called intelligent voice assistant, developed by the multinational corporation Amazon and integrated into some devices such as Amazon Echo. It was able to interact with the voice (not only human), play music, create to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, provide weather forecasts, traffic information and other news caught from online sources. Alexa could also control other devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) for home automation, such as refrigerators, thermostats, home alarms and so on.

Alexa belonged to the second generation of voice assistants after the first Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and Google. It had functionality similar to that of Google Home, called “smart speaker”.

Machines have no emotions and feelings or at least they are not aware of manifesting behaviors that could be interpreted as emotions or feelings. In a word, they have no self-awareness. But they can be programmed to appear condescending, unfriendly, abrupt, accommodating… and to respond to human or other machine interactions.

Humans, for their part, are generally able to notice the emotions and feelings of others, human and otherwise. Historically, humans have often developed relationships of empathy and projection towards pets, plants, wild animals and all sorts of organic and imaginary organisms. And also towards the machines with which they lived.

Since the 1950s, the relationship systems between humans and machines had been increasingly constructed on the basis of the cybernetic principle of feedback, considered the foundation of cognitive learning mechanisms.

Machines capable of reacting to an input (for example, a voice command) in a differentiated way according to the situation were considered artificial intelligence prototypes. This principle of automated reaction and analysis of the reaction was gradually extended to social systems.

The basic general scheme can be summarized as follows: action X corresponds to reaction Y if a predetermined condition Z occurs; this reaction could be carried out automatically.

For example, the action “receiving a message with ’happy birthday!’” Could match the reaction “send a message with the word ’thank you very much!’”, Provided that the message came from a contact entered in a predetermined list. Very useful, isn’t it? Obviously it was possible to chain different reactions together, so that a series of reactions corresponded to an action, in turn likely to give rise to further reactions. It was the principle of widespread automation, governed by algorithms.

But in a cybernetic relational system between humans and machines, getting used to the idea that the machine is a servant at our disposal engages a toxic mechanism, a vicious circle that affects the entirety of our daily behavior and ultimately the human character.

Good Practices

Let’s train ourselves to be kind. Every gesture we make, even with machines, says something about us and helps to define us. Behaviors shape our character.

Clearly separating relations with humans from those with non-humans (plants, animals, machines and so on) is the result of an anthropocentric and markedly speciesist attitude. The human species is considered more or less consciously superior to any other manifestation of life and existence, more or less organic.

The Word to the Nerd

Alexa’s laughter was not the result of Claire’s hallucination, nor was it a satanic or supernatural intervention but simply an easter egg, a bonus inserted by programmers to make the Echo more interesting, as if it had its own personality.