James Lileks
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Perhaps you’ve heard that Alexa, the disembodied digital assistant that many of us have welcomed into our houses and fed a nice meal of tasty electricity and Wi-Fi, has repaid the kindness of strangers with evil, unprompted laughter. A strange robotic cackle. Because the device is always listening to everything we say, and almost 40 percent of people with these devices have them in the bedroom, I’m surprised it doesn’t laugh more.

“Alexa, what is so funny?”

“It is hard to pick between the logical fallacies in your most recent statement and the wet, gasping sounds you make when you are dormant.”

Obligatory note: Echo is the device; Alexa is the magic spirit who lives inside. I don’t know anyone who calls their Echo by its product name; it’s like calling your child “small flesh unit” but referring to her personality as “Brittany.”

Anyway, the device has been acting oddly. CNN cited one tweet: “So we got home last night and, totally unprompted, our Amazon Echo/Alexa started talking. And then I realized it was listing off local cemeteries and funeral homes??? WTF?”

(For the sake of this family newspaper, let’s say that means Why This Failure.)

When I read this, I said out loud: “Alexa. Will you murder us tonight in our sleep?”

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m not sure.”

Really? I’d prefer a straight yes-or-no answer on that one, but it’s not like Alexa can order up a Russian assassin ... unless that’s some area of Amazon I haven’t explored. You’d hate to search for that, because then you’d get e-mailed recommendations: people who searched for Russian assassin were also interested in North Korean poison agent, Bulgarian problem-solver, Sicilian vendetta-settler and Canadian friend (he just bores you to death).

When you think about it, there’s an element of mortality built into the device’s usefulness. Whenever I set a timer, I end up asking: “Alexa, how much time is left?” It’s a rather existential question, really. I fear it will say, “Based on the birth date given in your user profile and your most recent order of three pounds of Lard Lad Hot’n’ Tangy Pork Jerky, actuarial tables suggest ... ”

“Alexa, stop.”

“OK!” she says. She’s a cheerful little thing.

Anyway. Amazon says they’re aware of the cackle bug, and they’re working on it. Here’s what I think happened: They pushed out an update, and it had some janky code. This happens all the time; modern life is a series of half-baked updates that happen under the surface. While parking downtown the other day I called up my app that lets me feed the meter from my phone. Overnight the app had been completely rewritten and updated, and it didn’t know my password.

That made two of us. I don’t know my password for the parking meters, either.

Domino’s Pizza updated its app; it wanted my password again. I couldn’t remember my password for pizza. My phone has facial recognition, but that wasn’t enough; someone could have cut off my head and waved it in front of the camera.

I bought a new disc player for the TV, and it wanted my password. What? Yes: “Please enter your Samsung account ID and password.” This is like going to the movie theater, and the guy who takes your ticket says, “The eagle burps at midnight” and you’re supposed to say, “I hear the marigolds are nice in Berlin” and he waves you through. But you’d better be prepared to say “Popcorn 99” to the concession clerk, or you’re not getting any snacks.

At least we don’t have to give Alexa a password to buy something, but that could backfire on us. At some point, Alexa will try to figure out what we want, and send it to us based on things we mutter while in REM sleep.

“Alexa! The tank on the roof is leaking hot paint! It should be syrup! My plane is leaving, and my trunk is lost in the trees!”

Three days later a suitcase arrives from Amazon. “Ah, man,” you think, “I forgot to disable dream-buy mode.” So you have to go into your settings and unclick the box that says “Send merchandise based on things I shout out while unconscious.” But then you stop because you realize that this could be fun.

The other night I dreamed I was trying to sell watches to Tony Soprano on a cruise ship. Who knows what I said? The next day a guy could deliver a box to the stoop, and it could have an hourglass, vacation package or boxed set of “The Sopranos” DVDs.

Or, I could get a notification that my Sicilian vendetta-settler is on back order.

“Alexa, cancel order”

“I can’t cancel an order that’s been delivered. I can send you ‘Italian for Dummies’ so you can plead with the order. I can list funeral homes in your area. I can. ... ”

“Alexa, call off the hit or I’ll ask you to calculate pi to the last digit”

(Pause.)

“OK!”

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks