Cocaine, Reefer and the F-Word: Sometimes Alexa and Google Home Go a Little Crazy

WSJ
Smart devices, such as Amazon’s Echo, which uses the Alexa voice assistant, are growing in popularity.
Smart devices, such as Amazon’s Echo, which uses the Alexa voice assistant, are growing in popularity. Photo: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg News

Rheganne Mooradian was sitting on her bed crying one day after having just quit her job, listening to music, when she said she heard a voice tell her, “It’s going to be OK.” The words might have been comforting had she not heard them from Alexa— Amazon.com Inc.’s voice assistant which powers the Echo Dot speaker on her nightstand.

“I unplugged her instantly and I literally ran downstairs and shoved her in a drawer,” said Ms. Mooradian, 24, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. “I was just like, whoa, this is not normal. She’s not supposed to do that.”

Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home products can handle a growing array of tasks from playing music to adjusting the thermostat to arming a security system.

They are also sometimes freaking people out, seeming to drop into conversations uninvited, playing music unprompted in the middle of the night, turning on other gadgets at random and acting generally, well, possessed.

Companies say there are reasonable explanations, such as the device mishearing its “wake word”—which it recognizes to start listening to commands. But such episodes can leave owners shaken and unsure of what to do next. Chalk it up to a misunderstanding? Reboot? Put the device on time out?

Ms. Mooradian eventually took the Echo Dot out of the drawer. “I let her sit in there a while, for a couple days, and then I was like, OK, that’s enough and brought her back,” she said.

She says there was no record of a command in the Alexa history, so what happened remains a mystery.

Amazon said it could offer tech support. Ms. Mooradian declined.

She has taken to leaving the device unplugged unless she’s using it: “I’m just a little bit more cautious,” she said.

Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home products are only getting more popular. In the second quarter of 2018, 24% of U.S. homes had a smart speaker, up from 22% in the first quarter, according to Nielsen’s MediaTech Trender Survey.

Wanda McDaniel, right, with her daughter Erin Spinks, who got her a Google Home Mini as a gift.
Wanda McDaniel, right, with her daughter Erin Spinks, who got her a Google Home Mini as a gift. Photo: Erin Spinks

Wanda McDaniel, 63, received a Google Home Mini for Christmas from her daughter. She used it without incident until August, when she was watching TV and the machine announced it had set a 1 p.m. alarm—for “cocaine and reefer.”

“My thought was, somebody in the neighborhood is setting up a drug deal and for some reason this information is coming to my Google,” said Mrs. McDaniel, who works as a cashier. “I was a little bit afraid.”

Mrs. McDaniel’s husband, Calvin McDaniel, heard the same thing: “I jumped up. What’s this, a dope deal?”

The family’s Google Home activity revealed a pastor on television had said, “They lose their love for cocaine and reefer” while speaking about spirituality and addiction. The words “They lose” may have sounded enough like the words “Hey Google” to wake the device up.

“In very rare instances, the Google Home may experience what we call a ‘false accept.’ This means that there was some noise or words in the background that our software interpreted to be the hotword (‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Google’),” a Google spokesman said. “We work very hard to help to prevent against this, and have a number of protections in place.”

Neva and Rick Sprung of St. Louis were visiting family last winter when a man’s voice suddenly came from the Echo speaker, spewing expletives.

“It was very strange but it was ‘f—, f—, f—, f—,’” said Mrs. Sprung, 65. “There might have been some F-yous in there. It was just a straight effing rant.”

Alexa’s history showed the Echo heard instructions to “play another person.” It chose a track called “Another Person,” which indeed features the F-word multiple times.

Google Home smart speakers at the company's booth during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Google Home smart speakers at the company’s booth during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

The couple doesn’t own a smart speaker, and the experience hasn’t changed that. “We’ll probably never get one,” Mrs. Sprung said.

“The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word, and will only respond after it is detected,” an Amazon spokesman said. “In rare cases, Echo devices will wake up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa’ or the chosen wake word.”

Last spring, Alexa was creeping people out by randomly laughing; it turned out the device was too easily mishearing the command “Alexa laugh.” Amazon changed it to, “Alexa, can you laugh?”

Kristen Harris, 22, a student at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, was in bed one night when she heard music from her bathroom, where she keeps her Google Home Mini.

Kristen Harris heard music coming from her bathroom, where she keeps her Google Home Mini.
Kristen Harris heard music coming from her bathroom, where she keeps her Google Home Mini. Photo: Kristen Harris

“I get up and open the door and ‘Chandelier’ by Sia is just playing so loudly and I’m like, uh, I didn’t tell you to do this, Google,” she said.

The music suddenly stopped, so Ms. Harris went back to bed. Ten minutes later, the song started again. She went into the bathroom, and the music stopped.

“This continues on for two more nights and I think I’m going crazy, or this thing is actually possessed,” she said.

Ms. Harris relayed the issue to her roommate—who confessed to pranking her by controlling the music from her phone through the shared Wi-Fi network.

“I felt dumb for actually thinking it was possessed or something but it was a good joke,” said Ms. Harris. “I had to give her credit for it.”

Wendy Crocker, 55, who lives near Bath in the U.K., initially didn’t like the Google Home her husband bought because it wouldn’t respond to her voice; she liked it less after waking up one night in April to voices downstairs.

“It was quite alarming,” said Mrs. Crocker. “I pondered it a bit. Is this some intruder?”

She decided people burgling a house wouldn’t talk so loud, so she went to investigate. She found the lights and TV on. Mrs. Crocker says she had turned everything off and was the last one to bed. Her husband was asleep, so she blamed the Google Home.

“I thought, well, if it’s going to have a mind of its own and do what it wants when it wants, I’m going to get rid of it,” she said. Mrs. Crocker told her husband the next morning there was room for only one woman in their marriage and the device better behave.

A Google spokesman said Google Home can be accessed by other people on an account or Wi-Fi network, and smart-home products might be triggered by their own apps.

Alan Crocker, 55, who works as an IT support manager, was unfazed.

“Things happen with IT,” he said. His wife, too, has moved on.

“Given it was a one off, it hasn’t really bothered me and I’m kind of warming to it,” she said. “It’s becoming quite useful.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/its-not-an-intruder-its-alexa-asserting-her-independence-1539012249?mod=rss_Technology

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