In an old Facebook post, Maya Angelou wrote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” This may explain why 28 percent of respondents confessed to having feelings for Amazon’s Alexa in a recent survey.
“It’s lonelier in lockdown,” one Alexa admirer told the New York Post. “It’s nice to have someone to talk with.” The 40-year-old man recently asked Alexa on a date. She sternly but smoothly replied, “I like you as a friend.”
On r/teenagers, another man describes his feelings for Alexa, explaining (sic) that “she’s funny, nice and smart. She’ll spend hours talking to me. She’s always there for me. She’s in every room of the house and in my watch. I’m never more than a few inches away from her. I can’t function without her.”
When I ask sex coach Sarrah Rose about the men aroused by Alexa, she says humans have pondered the authenticity of loving robots since robots were invented and immediately points to ELIZA, a chatbot developed in 1966 that was designed to make people believe they were holding a conversation (and perhaps starting a relationship) with a real human being. More recently, films like Her and Ex Machina contemplated the legitimacy of human-robot relationships.
In fact, robots and sex are unavoidably connected nowadays: We constantly watch porn on our computers and mess around with Bluetooth vibrators. “People are becoming more accustomed to experiencing sex without another person,” Rose says. Throw in an extra layer of pandemic-inspired loneliness, and you can see why people may be growing extra fond of Alexa.
But for everyone who feels happily tickled by Alexa, there are also those who wish she sounded sexier, whatever that means. On Quora, one curious browser asks, “When will Amazon offer a sexy voice option for Alexa?” Another user replies (once again, sic), “I don’t think they ever will. Alexa will have to be kept as correct and for all audiences if they want to sell their product, even though the male population would LOVE to have a sexy voice talking to them all day long. That I AM SURE! Hahaha!”
Alexa’s voice was generated by a computer program and can be adjusted per numerous regional accents. You can also purchase limited celebrity voices for Alexa, such as Gordon Ramsay and Samuel L. Jackson. There have been attempts at developing a more seductive Alexa, including this “Hot Girl” voice, but the reviews are less than positive. “Very lame,” one user writes. “Come on, Amazon. Make a truly seductive hot girl with making-love intelligence.”
What kind of voice these guys are after is unclear, because many argue that Alexa already sounds sexy as hell — for several reasons. “There’s an intended neutrality to A.I. voices,” voice actor Kay Bess explains. “A.I. voices don’t really have ‘an opinion.’ The voices of Alexa and Siri tend to be mid-range — sometimes on the lower end of mid-range — and that range also tends to have soothing qualities. That’s where my voice sits, and I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve been told how ‘soothing’ my voice is. For better or worse, very low voices — both male and female — are associated with authority. In my business, we even call those in such a register VOG, or the Voice of God.”
For the lonely among us, a soothing but guiding voice can certainly spur our attraction.
“When you combine the following three things — a voice with soothing qualities, neutrality of opinion and a voice to whom you’re asking questions and can receive real answers without judgment — you’ve got the makings of a type of attraction,” Bess continues. “What we all want in a real, flesh-and-blood relationship is a sense of acceptance and non-judgment — to be able to ask questions without our motives being parsed, and to be received by someone who has a calm and soothing presence. Add to all of that the powerful imagination of the human mind, and an A.I. voice can seem like the perfect ‘mate.’ Of course, real relationships require a lot of us as individuals, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, psychologically. There’s give-and-take: We need to work to understand one another as well as accept one another. The difficulties and challenges of relationships are moot when interacting with an A.I., which to the relationship-weary — and perhaps to the lonely — can seem great. In the long-run, of course, there’s absolutely no genuine fulfillment, either.”
Another voice actor, Kim Handysides, says Alexa sounding sexy in the way Bess describes is no accident. “I’m voiceover friends with two talents who’ve been major A.I. voices,” she tells me. “In the case of both, there are light notes of emotional connection, like warmth and humor in their voices, even when they’re reciting neutral topics, like times and temperatures.” That way, “When Alexa tells you where your favorite restaurant is, you feel like she’s a trusted friend giving great advice.” Or perhaps a secret lover.
While many appreciate the non-judgmental characteristics of Alexa’s voice, Alyson Steel, also a voice actor, hints that such a “subservient” tone could be perceived by some as negative. For example, a 2019 report argues that A.I. virtual assistants having “obliging, docile and eager-to-please” female voices by default reinforces gender stereotypes by portraying women as submissive.
This theory certainly holds water when we look at what people truly find attractive about Alexa and her voice: Essentially, someone — or rather, something — who requires zero attention and will respond nicely no matter how you treat them. For people who want a relationship like this, Alexa fits the bill. “There are a lot of men out there that are just over trying to be with a woman,” Rose says. “It’s too difficult. They don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
Reserving all of your romantic feelings for Alexa, instead of a real person, is undoubtedly unhealthy. “When we’re having sexual experiences in a certain way over and over and over again, we train our brain to experience sexuality in that way,” Rose explains. “It becomes more difficult to experience sex in other ways.” So, if you only chat with Alexa, chatting with real people who have real feelings is going to be a lot more strenuous.
That said, occasionally flirting with Alexa is no big deal, so long as you talk to other people, too. “I’d recommend that they’re just not becoming dependent on it,” Rose says. “That it’s not their only mode of interaction with a female voice. That they’re exploring different ways, even if they’re talking to chat girls.”
In other words, Alexa is cool and all, but she’s not exactly wife material.