Alexa, is it possible to write a blog on home technology without inevitably discussing the Amazon Echo?
When Amazon introduced its digital voice assistant, the Echo, affectionately known as Alexa, in June 2015, it was a game changer. It caught consumers and tech giants like Apple by surprise and upended the home technology industry. I was testing lighting and home automation devices at the time and was surprised to receive an invite to be an early beta tester for the Echo. I often received skeptical questions from my otherwise supportive wife: is it too difficult to press a button that you need to use voice control? But as the Alexa app log demonstrates, she is a convert! “Alexa, how many teaspoons in an ounce?” “Alexa, play my favorite station on Pandora.” “Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes.” “Alexa, turn off all kitchen lights.” And my least favorite, “Alexa, what time does the mall close?” Wait, “logs” you ask? Yes, Alexa is listening and recording, always!
While recording voice logs in your home raises many privacy concerns, I have learned that in home automation, privacy is what you give up for convenience, much like other technology we have already grown accustomed to. To be fair, the logs are only sent back to Amazon when you preface your sentence with the wake-up word, Alexa. However, to hear the word Alexa, the Echo must always be listening. In certain models of the Echo, the device moves from audio logs to video logs, which can raise an eyebrow even further. I won’t go there, yet.
The always-listening feature does bring us to an important Shabbos question: Does one have to turn Alexa off for Shabbos if it is always actively listening and evaluating? I posed this question to Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman of the Zomet Institute in Israel (zomet.org) and he responded that “Since Alexa is always listening by capturing all sound in its vicinity and analyzing it to determine if it contains the trigger word Alexa, all speech triggers a function within the device. Although on Shabbos one might not care for this function, as one will (at least try their best) to not say ‘Alexa,’ it is a function that they very much want during the week. Therefore, even Alexa’s normal functioning on Shabbos would raise serious concerns, even if her name is never stated.” In other words, the Zomet Institute position on the Echo is that it is not permissible to have the Echo on in your home on Shabbos.
I sought a second opinion from other Rabbi’s and they all agreed with the Zomet conclusion that keeping Alexa on in your home on Shabbos is a problem. I asked the question again when Amazon announced that the Echo will be listening for glass breaks and smoke alarms to see if that would make a difference and the answer was still the same. From my own user experience, I have encountered practical reasons that you would always want to find a solution to turn the Echo off for Shabbos. I have had the device mishear the word Alaska as Alexa during the Shabbos meal. I have also had the device play random music without prompt. I have heard comparable stories from other users. What do you do on Rosh Hashanah when Alexa randomly starts playing music, as one user described? Pray (out loud) and ask for “Alexa to stop” and hope for a miracle?
I therefore recommend you always have an Alexa Shabbos plan. You can certainly unplug the device for Shabbos. Amazon is keenly aware of the privacy issue that their devices present and prominently offer on all versions of the Echo a mute button that will turn off the microphones and video if applicable. This would be effective in addressing Shabbos concerns. An important voice command feature that is noticeably absent from the Echo is the ability to ask Alexa to stop listening. Sure, you can physically push the mute button, but that is counter to the entire premise of the Echo. A routine that would allow you to say, “Alexa, get ready for Shabbos!” and would trigger a series of actions, including turning off the microphones in all Echo enabled devices, would be a welcome addition to the service for Shabbos and non-Shabbos observers alike. My technical recommendation for now is to turn the automation technology against itself and have the Echo device plugged into a smart switch or outlet that turns itself off for Shabbos (see previous articles at tribetechreview.com). This is what I have implemented, and it is effective. Upon turning the device on for Havdalah, the device wakes without any need for re-configuration. Perhaps when Amazon sees many devices going offline for Shabbos it will add this feature.
Honestly, I think this problem will become even more difficult to address in the future as more traditional appliances and gadgets around your home will come embedded with Alexa. Amazon makes it clear that this is their strategy and offers a free integration tool kit to make it easy for manufacturers to implement. They recently introduced their Alexa enabled Microwave which if anything is a message to electronics manufacturers to integrate Alexa in everything or else they will. Google is right behind Amazon as their search engine empire is at risk as searches move from computers and phones to voice-based devices (and the Google home device will have the same Shabbos issues). Refrigerators, thermostats, speakers, microwaves, washers and dryers will likely all have voice recognition embedded. Many already do. The Consumer Electronics Show this past year in Las Vegas was all about Amazon and Google voice integration. Hopefully, voice recognition will improve to the point that unprompted actions will no longer be an issue, but having listening devices all over your home might be inevitable, and muting each of them every week will not be easy.
The good news is that the Echo is always learning new skills and commands. Features are updated on a weekly basis. My first-generation device has all the software updates of the latest generation. A device that can be purchased for as little as $29 and gets better each week is very compelling. I look forward to the week when I am able to share a Shabbos mode workaround and Alexa will observe a day of needed rest. We are all living in a Star Trek world and we will need to adapt if we want to continue to live on the ship while remaining in Avraham’s tent. I will likely spend a few articles discussing Alexa, but until next time, live long and prosper. Shabbat Shalom!