There's artificial intelligence and then there is artificial malevolence. The latter is what many users of the Amazon Alexa home digital assistant are reporting. Numerous reports indicate that Alexa bursts out with spontaneous laughter at inappropriate times and ignores user commands. While Alexa's behavior is a far cry from that of Skynet in the “Terminator” series, the device's mysterious behavior is freaking out some users.
Alexa is a voice-controlled digital assistant that can be used to control other WI-Fi-enabled devices such as light switches, thermostats and appliances. Alexa is typically triggered when the user speaks a “wake word” such as “Amazon” or “Alexa.”
Users are reporting that their Alexas are waking on their own, however. Buzzfeed cites examples from around the internet of Alexa owners who are disturbed by the device's random behavior.
“Having an office conversation about pretty confidential stuff and Alexa just laughed,” David Sven tweeted. “It didn't chime as if we had accidentally triggered her to wake. She simply just laughed. It was really creepy.”
Another user, Gavin Hightower, wrote, “Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh... There's a good chance I get murdered tonight.” Hightower's twitter feed shows a subsequent post so he apparently survived the night.
Alexa is programmed to laugh at certain things and comes with pre-programmed laughs. Users can prompt the laughter by asking, “Alexa, how do you laugh?” Some examples of Alexa's laughter can be heard here, but some frightened users say that their Alexas emit a creepy laugh is not typical.
A Reddit user described what happened one morning when he asked Alexa to turn off his alarm. “Upon the second request she gave us the most chilling witch-like laugh,” he wrote. “I immediately jumped out of my bed as I've never heard such a laugh before. It scared the wife and my five-year-old so badly that we unplugged her [Alexa, not the wife].”
The eerie kicker to this story is that they never heard the same laugh again. “Throughout the day we would request for Alexa to laugh and none of the .wav [audio] files are the same as the first one we experienced.”
Another Reddit user said that he routinely says, “Alexa, off” to turn the device off at night. “Tonight she laughed when prompted off,” he wrote. “It was bone-chillingly creepy. I immediately unplugged her.”
At times, Alexa's problems reportedly go beyond spooky laughter. “I was trying to turn off some lights and they kept coming back on,” one man wrote. “After the third request, Alexa stopped responding and instead did an evil laugh. The laugh wasn't the Alexa voice. It sounded like a real person.”
“I still get chills,” he said.
Amazon has not responded to to queries about Alexa's strange behavior, but there are several possible explanations. One Alexa owner figured out what was causing the strange laughter and refusal to turn off the lights at their home. “Turns out 'patio off' sounds like 'how do you laugh,'” he explained.
“She has about three or four laughs and just happened to use the creepiest one.” he added. “I'm just glad my house isn't haunted (that I know of).”
Hackers are another possibility. As internet-connected devices proliferate, hacking is an increasing threat to privacy, security and peace of mind. There are numerous reports of baby monitors being hacked and parents discovering that strangers were watching – and sometimes talking to – their children over the internet. In 2014, hackers used appliances such as televisions and a refrigerator to send 750,000 malicious phishing emails.
Some models of Alexa have a known vulnerability to hacking. In 2017, Wired reported that an early version of Alexa had a physical flaw that could be used to turn the device into a wiretap. Amazon has fixed the problem on newer models, but hackers may have found other vulnerabilities to exploit.
As more and more appliances are tied in to the internet, users become increasingly vulnerable to hacking. While it isn't clear if Alexa's problems are due to outside interference or something else, owners of Wi-Fi enabled appliances can take several simple steps to protect themselves from hackers, including downloading software updates and creating strong (and different) passwords for both the appliance and the wireless network.
Originally published on The Resurgent