- When Amazon launched its smart speaker Echo device in 2014, it named its female-sounding AI assistant with a popular human name: Alexa.
- With the stunning popularity of the device, including hundreds of millions of Alexa-enabled devices in use fielding billions of commands each week, Amazon says, the world “Alexa” has now become synonymous with that AI assistant.
- One unintended consequence is that kids (and adults) named Alexa are being teased and bullied mercilessly from everyone, kids and adults alike, their parents say.
- One teenager told Business Insider that the teasing even crosses the lines into sexual harassment.
- Some parents have been forced to legally change their children’s names in order to protect them.
- An organization called Alexa Is A Human, founded by a mother, has been lobbying for Amazon to help them since 2018.
- So far, Amazon has not talked with the organization about the situation, or offered support. And Amazon declined to talk to Business Insider about it.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The moment Jennifer Clark realized that Amazon Alexa was ruining her 8-year-old daughter’s life was in July when her kid came home from vacation bible camp, an experience the child had been looking forward to for months.
“I happened to have Amazon open on my laptop and was shopping. She saw the name Alexa on my screen,” Clark recalls, referring to an ad for Amazon Echo device. The daughter said, “‘That’s my name. I don’t like it. They are always teasing me,” Clark told Business Insider.
“‘They are always pretending I’m the Alexa machine.’ And she started crying. I don’t know how long she was holding onto it,” Clark said.
It was a heartbreaking moment for Clark but even so, she didn’t realize the full extent of what her daughter was going through as a result of sharing a name with Amazon’s popular software bot, “Alexa.” The Amazon smart speaker device that features Alexa was released in 2014, when the child was three, and no one knew then what a worldwide phenom it would become.
At first, Clark, who is an educator with a background in child development, just put the camp-teasing story down to kids being kids.
But then she started to pay attention and saw the relentless nature of the teasing. It wasn’t just the kids at camp. It was kids and adults everywhere: the kids at school, her daughter’s teacher, adults at the store if Clark called out her daughter’s name, and so on.
“It slammed me in the face,” Clark recalls. This isn’t just a bit of teasing, “this is a whole different level.”
And she’s not alone. A father named his four-year-old daughter Alexa to honor his grandfather, Alexander. At that point, the Amazon Echo device featuring Alexa software had only been around for a little over a year. But in the past year, “we have been amazed at the speed and popularity of the device,” he told Business Insider, asking that his name be withheld to protect his family’s privacy.
He and his wife first became “slightly concerned after a visit to Santa in the local department store, which was a big thing for our daughter, and he spent the whole time laughing at her and asking if she does what she is told,” the dad said.
The problem is that Amazon chose a very popular name for its artificially intelligent machine with a woman’s voice.
Other tech companies with similar virtual assistant products opted for names like Cortana, Google Assistant and Bixby. But Amazon chose a human name that in the previous decade was among the top 75, and sometimes the top 50 baby names in the English speaking world, according to Baby Center. There were tens of thousands of kids already out there named Alexa.
At a time when tech companies are under fierce scrutiny for abusing user privacy, spreading misinformation on their platforms, and designing addictive products, the outcry over the Alexa name might seem like a minor grievance. But for the people affected by the shared moniker, Amazon’s actions and seeming indifference to the real world consequences, is a very personal, and never-ending reminder of the power the tech industry holds over our lives.
Falling on deaf ears
Another mom, Lauren Johnson, grew so angry and fed up that she wrote an impassioned essay to Jeff Bezos in November, 2018, called “Alexa is a Human” in which she shared the story of how her own six-year-old child was having her life shaped from being bullied over her name, coming home from school daily in tears.
When people learn her daughter’s name, “most people, nine out of 10 times, say something. It really is that big of a deal,” Johnson says.
The name “Alexa” has become synonymous with “servant,” Johnson told Business Insider. “If we had named our child Servant, we’d be all over the news,” Johnson says. “As an 8-year-old old that’s supposed to listen to what adults say, but when adults are teasing you, it’s difficult to the core.”
After CNBC and NBC New York wrote about the letter in 2018, other people named Alexa, as well as other parents, started reaching out to Johnson. The letter has become a website and the website is now a cross between a support site and a social action group.
Despite her appeals to Amazon, Amazon has not reached out to the group, even when Business Insider approached the company asking for comment on this story. Amazon declined comment.
Bullying to sexual harassment
How bad is it? The ordinary corny-joke level teasing (“Alexa, do this or that”) has taken a dark turn as some people named Alexa say that they are experiencing sexual harassment.
Business Insider talked to one 18-year-old high schooler named Alexa who said that, in addition to the usual Alexa do this-or-that jokes that come from everybody all the time, the boys at school have started teasing her by asking her to do sexual favors in the same tone: “Alexa, give me a –” she says.
This teen says she’s old enough and strong enough to handle the typical kind of teasing and tries to let it roll off her back. She also said she knows she’s not the only girl to be harassed because of her name. Girls at school with names in songs get the same kind of abuse, she says.
The difference is that a song’s popularity comes and goes, but Alexa is now everywhere and its popularity in devices only seems to be growing.
Amazon is determined to put the Alexa assistant everywhere, extending well beyond smart speakers to clocks, microwave ovens and even glasses.
“There is no reason not to put them everywhere in your house,” Amazon executive David Limp told the New York Times in September.
And with that comes double-entendres. For instance, when plumbing manufacturers released smart showerheads and waterproof speakers, the headlines immediately went to “Would You Invite Alexa Into the Shower?” and “Alexa, take a shower with me!”
These are not the kinds of remarks parents of young girls, or even adult women, want to be batting with all day, every day.
“I can handle myself. I didn’t grow up with this,” says the 18-year-old Alexa, who asked that we do not share her last name. But she adds, she’s angry and heart broken for the little girls dealing with this.
“It’s a nice name. And it shouldn’t have been taken. It makes me so angry, that they would take a good, popular name,” she said. “A lot of children will be bullied for this. They are being bullied already.”
The name has become so vilified that “I just read an article about baby naming which compared the name Alexa to Bin Ladin,” said Johnson.
“There was an Alexa Caves on The Bachelor recently. There were so many comments that she should be banned from TV because it’s setting off their device,” said Clark.
As to why Amazon chose Alexa for the name of its AI, the Amazon executive in charge of Alexa, David Limp, has previously said the name is “a little reminiscent of the library of Alexander” which was at one time the keeper of “all knowledge.”
He said the Amazon team also chose the name because they believed it was a word people didn’t use much and believed the soft vowels coupled with an “x” made the name sound fairly unique as a wake word. Amazon also already owned a company bought many years before called Alexa Internet (still in operation today), founded by Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. That company was also named after the library of Alexander, Kahle once told Recode although Limp has said that there was no connection that caused Amazon to name its AI the same name as the Amazon-owned company.
As for recognizing that the name Alexa was already in use by many humans, back in 2016 Limp told attendees at a Fortune conference that, “Yes, we have a lot of examples of that, and dogs and cats.”
Changing their names
The relentless nature of the situation has caused some parents to give up the name.
“Our daughter asked several times after saying her name in public and generally getting some kind of comments ‘why don’t people like my name?’ and last year said ‘I don’t want my name’ which is heartbreaking as parents to hear from a 3-year-old,” said the father the preschooler.
With the consultation of a child psychologist and the permission of the child, the family has started calling their Alexa by a different name: Alexandria. “We really feel that hearing the subservient manner in which the name is now used and especially as her generation are growing up accepting that you bark orders at Alexa this name could be (and is) a negative for her.”
The parents of another three-year-old pre-schooler came to the same conclusion and are taking a step farther. They are in the process of legally changing their daughter’s name.
At first, they had no problem with the technology and the child sharing the name. They even got an Echo as part of their home security system. But then adults were increasingly teasing their daughter. “The professionals at the doctors officer have laughed and asked her things. If anything you think an adult would know better but they think it’s acceptable to make fun of her,” said her mom.
One of the final straws was when parents were refusing to allow their daughter to come to their home for playdates. “We’ve been told, ‘She can never come to our house because we have an Echo and it would be too confusing,'” the mom said.
So the parents worked with the three-year old to choose a new name. She’s young enough to roll with it, telling her family: “You can call me Aria now,” and if her dad forgets, she says, “Silly Daddy, I’m not lexa, I’m Aria now.”
But legally changing a name involves weeks of a paperwork. “You have to jump trough a lot of hoops,” the mom says. And doing so for an older child already enrolled in school is even harder.
What can Amazon do?
The 18-year-old says that she doesn’t want to change her name. She likes it and it’s part of her identity.
Neither Johnson nor Clark, whose kids are school aged, want to legally change their daughters’ names either. Johnson and her daughter have slowly been using a new nickname, Lexi, at least around people who don’t know her as Alexa. And the Clarks also “made the financial sacrifice,” to place their daughter in a private school where teasing is not allowed, hoping to protect her better, Clark said.
I love @alexa_chung and think she’s a wonderful judge on Next in Fashion, but wow my Amazon Alexa will not shut up while I watch this show.
— Theresa Rowley (@theresarowley) January 30, 2020
Why did you have to call it Alexa? Why?
— alexa chung (@alexa_chung) January 12, 2019
What they would all prefer is for them to get the name back, without the baggage of being associated with a servant.
Ideally, they want Amazon to rename their software bot something else by default, like Echo, the name of the device.
“Amazon should recognize the real human Alexas do exist,” says the teenage Alexa. “Please stop advertising it as an Alexa. It’s an Amazon Echo. Google’s [smartspeaker] is named Google. If they just named it Echo it would be perfect.”
Johnson, Clark and others have been lobbying hard for this but the request via the website, Twitter account and Change.org petition, has fallen on deaf ears at Amazon.
None of them have heard from anyone in authority from Amazon beyond a reply from a customer service representative promising to forward her complaint on.
Johnson isn’t giving up.
She spoke in early January at the Project Voice conference. After her talk several AI developers, none from Amazon, told her they had new awareness of why they should not name software bots with real human names. One voice developer said she wished these AI software bots, particularly Alexa, were not female at all, Johnson said.
Short of changing the name of the AI assistant to a different, non-human name, Clark wants Amazon to provide some education and awareness to let people understand that Alexa was a popular human name.
She wants Amazon to tell people, “Amazon’s Alexa is a tool. It’s not a license to tease human Alexas,” she said.
“If they would just be willing to assist in raising awareness, sharing a message, etc, significant gains could be made,” said Clark.
“Child development what I do. Research suggests the name chosen does impact them into life,” Clark said.
Thanks to the popularity of the Echo, “the lines are becoming increasingly blurred with difficulty in separating the device from the human.”
SEE ALSO: Goodbye screens, Hello voice: Tech’s biggest platform shift since the smartphone is happening. Here’s what it means.
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