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Column: Didn’t believe or like what I said? Blame it on Alexa
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

A few years ago, I sat my grandparents down in front of my cellphone and asked them a few questions about their life.

They went to school in Arkansas during the Great Depression years. My grandpa tells in the video of how his school went bankrupt when he was in the sixth grade; there weren’t enough taxes to pay for the operations. My nana went to a one-room school house with a wood-burning stove in the middle of the floor. There wasn’t a high school, so since she liked school, she went back to eighth grade a second time. A kind teacher taught her ninth grade lessons the next year.

My grandparents eventually both ended up at University High on the other side of the county — my nana by taking a dishwasher job at a boarding house and my grandpa by hitching a ride with a neighbor. 

It’s 9 minutes of video that takes up a lot of room on my phone, but you know I’m not getting rid of it, especially since my grandpa died in February 2020. My nana just turned 97 this week.

With that precious clip, I may soon be able to bring Grandpa’s voice back to life with Amazon’s Alexa.

In fact, I don’t need anywhere near 9 minutes of recording; less than a minute will do and then “Grandpa” could read to my kids, according to Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa.

That might be nice, especially if Grandpa’s voice could read the old adventure stories he made up about a salesman for the John J. Hecklemeyer Knives & Blowtorches Co. He told those stories to his kids and then his grandkids.

“We’re unquestionably living in the golden era of AI — where our dreams and science fiction are becoming reality,” Prasad told an audience at a recent conference.

Grandpa reading a bedtime story may sound like a dream, but I think Prasad may have missed a few of those science fiction storylines.

There’s the one where a human character falls in love with an artificial intelligence system. That’s creepy. And then of course there’s the one where an artificial intelligence system takes over the world. 

I’m not saying Grandpa reading bedtime stories is going to lead to either of those outcomes, but the technology does have some pretty big ethical questions.

What else might “Grandpa” say?

Some great-grandkids might have too much fun with that. 

More seriously, though, what if “Grandpa” says something offensive and his reputation tarnished? What about those who are still living? What will prevent their voices from being uploaded into Alexa and then manipulated for ill gain?

What if someone’s got a recording of the mayor or a school teacher or a business leader — then it gets uploaded to Alexa? What offensive things might then be attributed to the mayor or the school teacher or the business leader? 

People in power have certainly been recorded saying some questionable things. So on the flip side, what happens if they can blame it on Alexa?

“No Mr. Reporter, I certainly did not say those racist things about my colleagues on the school board. That was Alexa.”

Who’s to say what is real and what is not? The Grandma telling a bedtime story in Prasad’s presentation was pretty convincing. 

I don’t believe we’re there yet with our AI voice technology — my Google listens to me about as well as my children — but as Amazon keeps working on this project, we may get some very lifelike robot voices coming out of our devices.

So, if you ever hear that I said something you really disapprove of, it was Alexa.


Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.