Meet Alex, the Trainee

This project aims to open up a space for discussion on the future of smart speaker services and critically investigates interactions and services with smart assistance. We created Amazon’s brand-new, fictional service “Alex, the Trainee”, which allows users to teach and shape their personal assistant. We explored the kinds of scenarios this service may produce, how current problems are resolved, and which kinds of new issues are introduced.

2019
Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh

The service of a teachable voice assistant is presented as a Design Fiction, which is a recently introduced research method allowing the evaluation of speculative, fictional prototypes in a narrative environment. In Blythe’s words, design fictions “address complex or ’wicked’ problems and evaluate how current and future technologies may effect people” [Blythe 2014].

Extract:
"Hello, I am Alex, Alexa’s new trainee. I am here to make sure that you as the user understand how I work and how I learn things about you. You can teach me the exact amount of skills that you want and, thus, decide how much I am capable of understanding. For example, you can teach me to turn on the light in your kitchen, but not check the weather for you. This way, I can help you to control your lights, but you do not have to reveal your location to me.
Also, you can instruct me not to share any information about you with anyone outside of Amazon or your home. This ability will give you two advantages. First, I give you control over how much I can learn about you and the context of your request. Second, by specifying my limits, I get to teach you about what kind of data, permissions and connections I need to fulfil the task you gave me. For instance, you can tell me not to share your data with any third parties. Yet, when you ask me to play your favourite play list from Spotify, I will inform you that I have to talk to a third party to get your music. But I will let you make your own, informed decision whether you are happy for me to add an exception.
Training me is much easier than you think. Similarly to my mentor Alexa, I will activate when you call my name. By saying a new command such as “I want to teach you how to play music from Spotify”, you encourage me to check whether I already have this skill. If I do not, I will then try to understand what exactly I have to do. You can give me more instructions like “Alex, connect to my Spotify account that I linked in the app and ask Spotify for my favourite music. Then play it”. I will then try to follow. By giving me these instructions, you also get the chance to learn how I connect to Spotify and how I work.
You can not only teach me how to fulfil requests, but also how to forget certain information or skills. So, if you allowed me to access your location data before, you can easily withdraw your permission by saying “Alex, forget my location data and do not collect it again.” and I will not remember it again. Because you can train me, I can learn all the skills that my mentor Alexa can, but also so many more. For example, you can tell me to differentiate between different visitors, authenticate you by your voice and create automatic voice profiles. Also, I learn from you, so I will interpret your request just as you taught me."

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