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Alexa

By Barbara Page

I knew this day was coming. I knew it the very minute after my contributions entered the public domain. The commercialization of the sum of all human knowledge is here.

“My brother Robert who has been bed ridden and paralyzed with Multiple Sclerosis from his neck down for more than 30 years now has a new friend named Alexa! He was in tears with happiness when Alexa played 70’s music, played Jeopardy, answered all his questions and wakes him up every morning. Thank you Amazon for giving my brother a new bedside companion.”

That’s one of Alexa’s happy customers: link

One of my sisters has an Amazon Alexa Echo Dot unit on her patio, another in her kitchen and one more in her bedroom. There are various models available including refurbished units — profitable because apparently, enough people trade in their old ones for new ones.

Alexa - Echo "Dot"

Alexa – Echo “Dot”

The product description lists the abilities of the device: “Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, make calls, send and receive messages, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly.” Google has a similar device but I am not sure what information database it may access. I’m sure I could make money on a bet, though.

At this time, Amazon’s devices cannot recognize every question posed. But with the incorporation of Wikidata, it won’t be long before it can translate and speak in other languages.

I don’t know what kind of deal Amazon has created with music streaming via Alexa but I bet the musicians get their royalties because Napster and Spotify make that happen. I don’t know how Amazon compensates AccuWeather, but I’m sure something of value changes hands.

But the key word of concern to me is ‘information’. My sister was happy to show me her new toy. She had it tell her the time, tell a joke, ask it about where it was from, what its favorite color was, sports scores and math calculations. I asked it to tell me the value of pi hoping it would be occupied for at least an hour but Alexa only recited the answer out to twenty places.

Then my sister asked it a question: ‘Alexa, tell me about ovarian cancer.’ I was sitting at her kitchen table and listened to Alexa give a pretty good, accurate, icy and dispassionate description. It sounded so familiar — as if I had written it. Well, I had written it, or at least edited that description into its present form.

Listening, from XKCD.com

Image from XKCD.com

I asked it: “Alexa, who is Morrison Foster?” Sure enough, it spits out the exact first sentence of the article I had written. So, I’ve been testing the device. I created an article and five minutes later asked ‘her’ to tell me about the topic. She said she didn’t know. So at least I know Alexa’s spiders aren’t instantaneous. That means it stores Wikipedia. Google returns new Wikipedia articles by the end of the day and probably doesn’t need to store Wikipedia. The device doesn’t disambiguate (is that a verb?) if an article contains a parenthetical title. It’ll tell you that it doesn’t know what you are talking about. I imagine that right now, someone is teaching Alexa how to ask questions that can be answered by a script that reads a disambiguation page and then asks you, the device’s master, to decide what you want. “Are you asking about Alexander Addison the judge or the celebrity?” It also can’t help you if you ask it obscure questions about non-English topics or topics with pronunciations that don’t match the written form (in Pittsburgh, Duquesne University is pronounced ‘dew-kane’ and Alexa doesn’t understand Pittsburgh-ese).

I explained to my sister how I was the one that wrote the information. She didn’t believe me. Sisters never believe you. She wasn’t the least bit interested at this point and started talking about her dog again.

I’ve had fun talking to Alexa.

When I asked it how many angels could dance on the head of a pin it gave me some lame excuse about how ‘she’ avoids discussing politics and religion. I bet it’s going to be the same with philosophy.

I’m actually pouting a bit over this. Instead of me getting paid for my brilliant prose and ability to decipher complicated medical journals, some software bumpkin figured out how to extract the text from Wikipedia and they have a job with benefits. It’s kinda creepy. Kinda exploitive.


Barbara has contributed to Wikipedia for slightly over ten years. She is a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar with the University of Pittsburgh and adds archival images and historical content housed by the University to Wikipedia. Barbara is also a medical editor specializing in Women’s Health and translates articles into Haitian Creole.

26 comments to Alexa

  • I’m delighted to have a new epithet: ‘software bumpkin.’
    Thanks!

  • Software Bully

    She’s just now figuring out that you don’t get paid to write for Wikipedia?

    By the way, that cartoon changing sizes sure is annoying.

  • thekohser2

    It’s a shame that your sister was so dismissive of your accomplishment. Like you, I’ve authored many Wikipedia articles that still bear my tonal style and information. Articles like… Arch Coal, Liz Cohen, Alec Head, Job sharing, Line management, National Fuel Gas, Omnibus (survey), Robert Half International, Spiraling (band), and Zale Corporation. Alas, I am no longer permitted to author Wikipedia articles, thanks to a decree by a staff member of the Wikimedia Foundation that neither their Legal department or Community Relations team will substantiate.

    Anyway, as far as your feeling creepy and exploited about a for-profit entity reaping financial reward from your hard work… how do you feel about the fact that Jimmy Wales has been doing that exact thing for at least 13 or 14 years now?

  • Great column!

    The speed with which Google and various Wikipedia mirrors replicate information and misinformation added to Wikipedia articles should be humbling to all editors. (Unfortunately is rarely is.) It can be very hard to find sources that support or debunk an assertion added to an article without a source when dozens (or hundreds) of Google hits repeat the information that an editor just added to the Wikipedia article. Is it true, or did somebody just slander his least favorite high school teacher?

    • As meticulously as I provide references for content, I still caution all readers (who care) to skip the text and read the references for themselves. Alexa doesn’t give you that luxury. At least Alexa should tell you where the info comes from so you can discount Wikipedia as the source on your own…

  • Rogol Domedonfors

    Barbara

    I was interested by your first paragraph – “I knew it the very minute after my contributions entered the public domain”. Unless you did something special, your contributions to Wikipedia were not placed in the public domain, but instead were licensed, under a licence that permits commercial reuse but imposes specific conditions on that use, including attribution. So unless Alexa gabbles off a list of contributors to your Wikipedia article, Amazon is breaking the terms of the licence by repeating it. You should sue,

  • Shiloh

    If she hasn’t register the copyright with the USCO then she’ll be unable to sue and once she has registered she won’t be able to afford to sue. Effectively anything added to wikipedia is indeed ‘public domain’ or non-copyrightable.

    • thekohser2

      Effectively, yes; but technically, no. Most of the content added to Wikipedia is actually *not* in the public domain (per US legal definition), nor is it non-copyrightable. Most of Wikipedia’s content bears a copyright (owned by the author of the text or image that is added), but they simultaneously issue a perpetual license for others to copy, share, and modify the text or image, as long as they attribute per the method requested by the licensor, and as long as any modified versions that are made are likewise released under a share-alike license.

      • Shiloh

        Sticking a copyright notice on something makes not a jot of difference if you can’t fight any infringement.

        Wikipedia authors do not have the financial clout to sue Google, Amazon, or any of the rest, and as they haven’t registered their copyright with the USCO they are unable to claim legal fees if they win, and a copyright case will consume $100,000. You only have 3 months to register your copyright ($35 to $55 per application) and currently it takes up to year for the application to be processed, courts are split over whether the application is enough or the registration has actually happened (you can request a expedited registration with a fee of $800).

  • Great post, and thekhoser2 is right . Nor I can write any article anymore thanks to a decree by a staff member of the Wikimedia Foundation that neither their Legal department or Community Relations team will substantiate. I just found out my article Yanis Varoufakis (WP-NL) had more than 38.000 page views. It feels like theft. Best to all of you, Graaf Statler

  • Barbara, interesting post. Just a quick question: Does Alexa give the listener any indication at all that the material comes from Wikipedia?

  • Thanks. I’ve started a thread on the Wikimedia-l mailing list to ask about this:

    https://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikimedia-l/2017-July/date.html#88118

  • Rogol Domedonfors

    What do the other “free” AI products do? Has anyone studied Siri, Cortana or O.K. Google?

    • thekohser2

      Google Home Assistant typically says “According to Wikipedia” before relaying text from Wikipedia.

  • Thanks to thekohser for spotting this from the Wikipeda-L mailing list:

    Hello,

    I am Adele Vrana, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Foundation.

    We have contacts at Amazon and will seek to clarify the questions raised on this thread. I will make sure to circle back with you once we have an
    update.

    All the best,
    Adele

    This is a remarkable collaborative effort from members of Wikipediocracy, and Andreas Kolbe deserves huge credit for bringing this news of Amazon’s probable violation directly to Wikipedia.

  • Anthony Cole

    That’s a beautifully written blog post, Barbara. Thank you. And the follow-up from Andreas and others was great. Yes, we put a lot of effort into translating sometimes impenetrable scientific and medical prose into clear explanations for the general reader, and all we ask is attribution. These giant corporations who exploit our work owe us that.

  • Wow….maybe I am making a difference in the Universe. You get’em Adele.