The Horrifying Reason Amazon Had To Update Alexa

Every so often, we'll hear of dumb and sometimes dangerous internet challenges that have caught on with the teenagers of the world. As if eating Tide pods or swallowing spoonfuls of cinnamon wasn't enough, there's apparently a new one making the rounds that challenges the brave and foolhardy to touch a penny to the partially exposed prongs of a plugged-in phone charger. One parent learned about this challenge in a rather alarming way, as Alexa suggested it as a challenge to her 10-year-old daughter.

Over the holiday weekend, Kristin Livdahl took to Twitter to share the unsettling story. "OMFG My 10 year old just asked Alexa on our Echo for a challenge and this is what she said," Livdahl said in her initial tweet. Accompanying that tweet is an image of Livdahl's Alexa activity that shows the user request – "Tell me a challenge to do" – followed by Alexa's reply.

"Here's something I found on the web. According to The challenge is simple: plug in a phone charger about halfway into a wall outlet, then touch a penny to the exposed prongs." That is probably not what most of us would expect Alexa to return when asked for a challenge.

Just so we're totally clear: don't try this challenge at home because you're guaranteed a nasty shock at best and will likely experience a much more severe one. As a bonus, you might even start an electrical fire, which is never good news. High voltage electricity and human bodies don't mix well, but hopefully, that goes without saying for pretty much all of us.

In any case, Livdahl goes on to say in her Twitter thread that her 10-year-old daughter did not, in fact, attempt Alexa's suggestion. Not only did Livdahl tell her not to as soon as Alexa recited the task, but her daughter told her she wasn't going to try it in the first place. Asked for background by another Twitter user, Livdahl says that she and her daughter were keeping themselves occupied with more innocent (and far less dangerous) challenges because of bad weather outside.

"We were doing some physical challenges, like laying down and rolling over holding a shoe on your foot, from a Phy Ed teacher on YouTube earlier," Livdahl said. "Bad weather outside. She just wanted another one."

So, how did we get to the point of Alexa challenging 10-year-olds to electrocute themselves? In reality, this is not as sinister as it may seem. When prompted for an idea, Alexa crawled the web for certain keywords and landed on the website you see in its reply. Alexa found this article from Our Community Now, which was published back in January 2020.

For the record, the article on Our Community Now wasn't endorsing the challenge but instead warning parents about it. Alexa stumbled upon this article in its web crawl for challenges and, since it isn't a human that can tell the difference between dangerous and innocuous challenges, surfaced it as a recommendation.

Essentially, this is a case of Alexa looking for specific keywords but missing the context behind them. Still, the idea that Alexa could serve up a dangerous challenge like this as a recommendation is enough to give parents everywhere pause, but Amazon is apparently on the case. In a statement to the BBC, Amazon confirmed that it has fixed this issue, so Alexa should no longer recommend electrocution to those in search of a challenge.

"Customer trust is at the center of everything we do and Alexa is designed to provide accurate, relevant, and helpful information to customers," the company said in its statement to the BBC. "As soon as we became aware of this error, we took swift action to fix it."

So, while it seemed like Alexa was making a play to be cast in the second season of Squid Game, the AI assistant won't be recommending that particular challenge any longer. This isn't the first time Alexa has fumbled the pass either, so to speak. When Amazon rolled out crowdsourced Alexa Answers at the end of 2019, it quickly became clear that many of the community's answers were inaccurate, poorly detailed, or showed some kind of bias (as reported by VentureBeat).

The big question now is whether or not Alexa will confuse other dangerous challenges for legitimate ones. Since we haven't heard of Alexa recommending that teens eat Tide pods, we're going to guess this is a one-off issue. For now, we'll take this as evidence that our smart assistants aren't quite ready to organize the AI uprising just yet.