190524 children playing with alexa
Children playing in a room with Alexa in the centre. Image Credit: NYT

In the course of my work, I am sometimes sent free stuff that I don’t know what to do with. When given the opportunity to review things, I usually turn down such offers, because I find it hard to write nice things about a product I never wanted in the first place. But sometimes the stuff just comes.

In the case of the free Alexa, though, I have accepted the assignment without knowing what it will entail. I’m still awaiting clarification when the box arrives late on Friday afternoon. In fact, there are two Alexas inside — a pair of black cylinders trailing wires. I’m not sure where they have come from, but they appear to be second-hand. My wife is away, so I call upstairs to the youngest one. He comes down a minute later.

“You need to set these up,” I say.

“Alexas?” he says. “I’m not living with those things!”

“It’s only for a week,” I say. “They listen to everything!” he says.

“I think that’s the point,” I say. “I’ll find out more on Monday, but in the meantime we need to make them work.”

“Give me your phone,” he says. “I’m not doing it on mine.”

He downloads the app, and plugs in both machines. It takes him just a few minutes to complete the set-up process. When he is done, I turn off the kitchen radio, and we sit across from the table from one another.

“What now?” I whisper.

“Alexa!” he shouts. They light up.

“Alexa!” I shout. “What’s the capital of Chile?” There is a short pause.

“Santiago,” Alexa says. “Whoa,” I say. “Alexa!” I shout. The dog begins to whimper because of the raised voices. “You know this thing knows our address?” the boy says.

“It will do,” I say. “It’s logged into my account.”

“You could probably be like, ‘Alexa! Buy me that laptop!’” he says. Alexa begins reading out the specifications of the last laptop I bought. “Uh-oh,” I say. “What have you done?”

“The price is £530,” says Alexa. “Would you like to buy it now?”

“No!” we both scream. The dog barks. “I’m not staying here,” says the youngest, standing up. The dog follows him out. I sit in silence, wondering what to do next.

“Alexa,” I say. “Play Radio 4.”

“Playing Radio 4,” says Alexa. At 6am the next morning I wake to the sound of urgent footsteps on the stairs. The youngest one bursts into my room, eyes wild.

“I just had a nightmare,” he says. “About Alexa.” From the look in his eyes, he is still having it. “What kind of nightmare?” I say. “It was terrifying,” he says. He crawls into bed beside me, and promptly falls asleep. He is 19.

The next day the oldest one drops by for a late lunch. I show him the Alexas. “I don’t really know what to do with them,” I say. “I now avoid saying ‘Alexa’, because ...”

“I’m sorry,” says one of the Alexas. “I didn’t quite understand that.”

“Because of that,” I say. “Your brother just avoids the kitchen.”

“Alexa!” he shouts. “What’s the Chelsea score?” Alexa tells him. “Creepy, isn’t it?” I say. “Quite handy for that sort of thing,” he says. “Alexa! Who scored the goal?”

On Monday, I have to leave the youngest one alone with the Alexas. He is not happy about this. I am reminded that, of all my children, he is the primary inheritor of my knack for groundless paranoia. “Walk the dog, feed the cat, don’t say ‘Alexa’, and you’ll be fine,” I say. “Great,” he says.

Some hours later, I receive an email informing me that I will not be required to write about Alexa after all. A few minutes after that, I receive an apology from the youngest one, telling me he had to unplug both Alexas: they had started talking to each other.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Robert Timothy Dowling is an American journalist and author.