The Signpost

In focus


Contribute  —  
Share this
By Barbara Page
Photograph of Petra the African Grey Parrot on the right, with Amazon Alexa to her left and in the center, both on a marble countertop; and an oval clock in the background to the left
Petra the African Grey Parrot and her Amazon Alexa gizmo

I wrote a very similar piece in 2017 about my concerns with Amazon's use of Wikipedia via its electronic devices and their lack of attribution. I didn't realize that I was something of a prophet. At least I knew this was coming, but I am guessing I wasn't the only one who knew that one day their contributions may be commercialized. And now I can say: "I told you so."

We editors have kept contributing content to the encyclopedia even though we knew that one day someone else would be making $$$ off of our words and sentences. I was convinced that what I do for fun (and other loftier goals) would only bring me fame and not profit. I am still okay with that—but I told you so. I knew this day was coming. I knew it the very minute after my words entered the public domain. The commercialization of the sum of all human knowledge is here.

I attended a family gathering last year where one of my siblings was happy to point out that they were the proud owner of four of Amazon's devices. I made sure that I retained my façade of amazement and admiration of their techiness so they would feel all warm and fuzzy inside (always a great goal at family gatherings). Their Alexas were in their lanai,[a] kitchen, master bedroom, and bathroom—go figure. I was introduced to the various models during the tour.

At the end of the tour, the Alexa in the kitchen was asked a question by my sibling: "Alexa, when is the next high tide in Sarasota, Florida?" Even though there was no convenient way to know if she was right or wrong, I was moderately amazed. Alexa was put through her paces spouting the weather report, the score of the Miami Dolphins game that was in progress, and popular songs by Imagine Dragons. My sibling then asked a question related to an upcoming visit with a professional who does things to make people feel better[b] that they were going to have done in the next week.

Amazon lists the talents of the device: "Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, make calls, send and receive messages, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly." Google is trying to catch up and has a device that can do similar things. I don't know what database it accesses. I could guess.

Sepia photograph of Morrison Foster with a suit, small bowtie, and thick moustache
Morrison Foster, the other Foster

Then, my sister asked Alexa a question about the upcoming event they were dreading: "Alexa, tell me about [event]." I was crunching away on the appetizers they had out when I heard Alexa give a pretty good, accurate, icy, and dispassionate description of the event. It sounded so familiar—as if I had written it. Well, I had written it, or at least edited that topic's description into its present form. I choked a little on the peanuts, causing some concern (not much, really) to my sibling. "What the [expletive] is wrong with you?" she asked. "I wrote that!" The sibling was not impressed, nor did she believe me. This time, I asked: "Alexa, who is Morrison Foster?" Sure enough, it spat out the exact first sentence of the article I had written. I then asked about another topic and was able to lip sync to Alexa's reply. My sibling began to ponder on the possibility that I might be correct.

Since then, I've been testing the device: I created an article and five minutes later asked her to tell me about the topic—she said she didn't know. So, at least I know Alexa's spiders aren't instantaneous. Google returns new Wikipedia articles[c] by the end of the day and probably doesn't need to store Wikipedia. Also, Alexa doesn't disambiguate: if an article contains a parenthetical title, she can't handle that either. It'll tell you that it doesn't know what you are talking about. I imagine that right now, someone is teaching Alexa how to ask questions that can be answered by a script that reads a disambiguation page and then asks you, the device's current master, to decide what you want. "Are you asking about Alexander Addison the judge or the celebrity?" Alexa doesn't handle obscure questions about non-English topics or topics with pronunciations that don't match the written form, as well.

I don't know what kind of deal Amazon has created with music streaming through Alexa, but I bet the musicians get their royalties due to the success of digital music providers like Pandora Radio, Napster, and Spotify. Amazon has been able to handle music streaming payments and compensation for online music and musicians, after all, especially now with Amazon Music Unlimited. I don't know how Amazon compensates AccuWeather, but I'm sure something of value changes hands.

But the relationship between Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation now has morphed into something new. Amazon has given the Foundation a million dollars. Was this a guilt-ridden donation by Amazon that was meant to make up for their continuing use of Wikipedia? My sibling kept up a conversation with her kitchen-based Alexa, asking Alexa the time, to tell a joke, what its favorite color was, other sports scores and math calculations. I asked Alexa to tell me the value of pi, hoping Alexa would be occupied for at least an hour, but Alexa only recited the answer out to twenty places.

Photograph of the Amazon Echo on a white background
"Alexa, what is proper attribution?"

When I asked Alexa if God can create a rock too heavy for Him to lift; she gave me some lame excuse about how she avoids discussing politics and religion. She can't get every question... for now. After about a dozen times of asking Alexa the same question over the course of two weeks, she had taught herself some kind of real response to the question. So she learns.

I'm actually pouting a little bit about how my brilliant prose and ability to decipher complicated journals has led some geeky, AI geniuses to a job with benefits with Amazon. Have we been exploited? I like the idea that information is available in a new and different way—but doesn't Amazon sell these devices at a profit? I'm pretty sure that Amazon has made a lot more in revenue in selling Alexa than it has contributed to the cause of accessible information—an impressive amount more, actually. A million dollars is not so impressive.


  1. ^ This is a back patio on many Floridan houses where you can sit outside and not catch Zika from the mosquitoes.
  2. ^ You know, like a pedicure, manicure, hair appointment; a Lady's clothing concierge appointment; etc.
  3. ^ That is, except stubs, lists, and some Start-class articles; and presumably only indexed ones.
In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.

Thank you for giving an insightful reflection. I think it accurately reflects how many people think about this and I also think that most people are left with the same level of not really knowing what to do about it. Its a difficult challenge and we can only hope that we can find timely answers as this kinds of technology changes the way we engage with information. —TheDJ (talkcontribs) 15:44, 29 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0