In further evidence that we are living in some kind of absurdist sci-fi version of the future, this week a little girl’s accident with her parents’ Amazon Echo lead to accidental dollhouse purchases all over San Diego.
The Amazon Echo is a wireless speaker from Amazon, and it lets people use the Alexa personal assistant service to let people do stuff like set alarms, check the weather, play music, make lists, and more. It’s a pretty neat toy, and one of the cool things it can do is automatically order stuff off of Amazon for you. So if you’re in the kitchen and you notice you are running out of za’atar spice blend, or your fridge needs a new filter, you can just tell it to order what you need from Amazon. It’s a cool trick, but everyone with small children is surely aware of one critical flaw in this system: Children.
Last week in Texas, a 6-year-old girl was playing with her family’s Echo, and she said, “Can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?”
According to Amazon, Alexa said yes, she could get the girl a dollhouse, and the six-year-old said, “I love you so much!”
Then a $160 KidKraft Sparkle Mansion dollhouse and four pounds of sugar cookies were sent to the house.
In that case, the family took the situation as a learning experience for everyone. The parents learned to set parental controls on purchases, and the kids all got a lesson in how to use Alexa and how not to order things by accident. The family kept the cookies, but donated the dollhouse to charity.
It’s a funny story, but that was just the beginning of the absurdity.
On Thursday, San Diego TV station CW6 was reporting on the story, with the tagline: “Amazon’s Alexa system may order unwanted merchandise.”
Anchor Jim Patton thought the story was funny and laughed, “I love the little girl saying, ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse.'”
As soon as he said that, Amazon Echoes around San Diego heard his words, thought they were commands, and tried to order dollhouses for their own owners. The station realized what had happened when a ton of grumpy viewers called to complain that the anchor had accidentally placed dollhouse orders through their Echoes.
Maybe shipping Amazon Echoes with “voice purchasing” activated as a default setting is a mistake.
Amazon says people can return accidental orders. They can also turn off voice purchasing, or make the Echo ask for a confirmation code before placing any voice orders.