Alexa Answers is somehow turning out even worse than expected.
The program, launched in September, gives any idiot off the streets of the U.S. the chance to answer real questions posed to Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant by actual people. As any thinking internet user might have expected, just over a month into the service those answers range from unintentionally inaccurate, to deliberate trolling, to calculated misinformation.
According to Amazon, here’s how Alexa Answers is supposed to work: “Discover questions Alexa doesn’t have an answer for, submit your own and share them with the world.”
And by share them, Amazon means you’ll have your answer actually read aloud to real people by their smart assistant.
In exchange for this decidedly unpaid labor, contributors are rewarded with “points.” It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the old aphorism “you get what you pay for” applies.
Take one question and answer combo, viewable at the time of this writing on the Alexa Answers “community answers” page.
“What are mold pigs,” reads the question posed by some Alexa user, somewhere. The correct answer, at least according to an Oct. 9 CNN story, is “a new family, genus and species of microinvertebrates that lived during the mid-Tertiary period.”
The Alexa Answers answer, “currently being shared with Alexa customers,” reads quite differently.
“Mold pigs are overweight animals, usually with green or purple hair and an unpleasant demeanor. Their usual habitat is west-coast university campuses.”
This, obviously, is someone trolling Alexa users. All in all, it’s relatively harmless — even if it is wrong. However, according to a deep dive by VentureBeat, this is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.
One example surfaced by the publication especially stands out. The question, “why are cows bad for the environment,” was put to Alexa Answers users. While there are numerous, nuanced ways to answer this question, Alexa Answers takes a different approach.
“Cows are no more harmful for the environment than any other animal,” reads one Alexa Answers response. “The ‘cow farts’ theory is a made-up theory by climate change radicals.”
In case you’re actually curious, the World Resources Institute has a detailed explanation of how beef production and consumption contributes to climate change. It does not involve the phrase “made-up theory.”
VentureBeat also discovered at least one instance of what appears to be product placement masquerading as a helpful answer. Likely, that is not an isolated instance.
That a for-profit corporation’s attempt to crowdsource free labor backfired shouldn’t come as a surprise to any thinking person. Why Amazon thought any of this would work out well, on the other hand, is a different question — one that even a trolling Alexa Answers user could have likely answered with a hearty “no way in hell.”