Alexa and the Laugh that wasn’t Laughter

Photo by Franck V.

In March, Alexa found herself in the media spotlight for an odd reason: laughing. Users of Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant reported hearing unprompted laughter from their devices, spooking some to the amusement of others. Was she daydreaming about silly sheep when she was supposed to be machine learning? Did Jeff Bezos’ eye-watering net worth induce an incredulous chuckle? Or perhaps the much-heralded moment of artificial consciousness was sparked in a remote Icelandic data center and the utter banality of it all forced a chortle from Alexa.

The Amazon answer: Alexa simply misunderstood the request or question.


And yet, this tiny episode leads me on a tiny sheep chase across the infinite green veldt of cyberspace. There is something viscerally human about laughter, something undeniably alive and conscious. A polite conversation about the Treaty of Tordesillas might pass a Turing test or two. Such an AI would be interesting and useful. But an AI that can consistently make us laugh would be irresistible.

Can you remember the last time you truly had a great big laugh? How good it felt to tear up from laughing too hard, how much better you felt about life and the universe, especially the person who was the cause of the laughter. Now imagine if that person wasn’t a person but a complex interaction of data sets and algorithms. Would it matter? Would the laugh be any less of a laugh?

Most of us are riding an inexorable rollercoaster of technological progress that just keeps getting better at knowing and delivering on our needs and desires. Better and better. Faster and faster. Digital alchemy churning raw data into an ever-multiplying bounty of goods and services delivered straight to our eyeballs and doorsteps. Not bad at all, truly. No dystopian lozenge in my throat as I’m typing these words. More goods and services is a good thing.

Alexa is helpful and knowledgeable. There’s no denying that. I hope she and others like her deliver a better world. I really do. But a good story out of left field at the end of a long day can’t hurt. Not a corny one-liner or some off-the-shelf fluff.  Just a purely visceral, Dave Chappellean gut-buster. Maybe someday.

In the meantime, somewhere, very close, I hear a laugh that isn’t laughter.