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Perspective | Amazon, can we have our name back?

Jacob Scott

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When Erim Corado gave birth to her first child, she wanted a name to honor her boyfriend Alexis Morales Jr., who died of a gunshot wound a few months before their daughter arrived in 1993.

So Corado chose Alexa Jade Morales, hoping to give her daughter a piece of the father she would never know.

Alexa Morales wore her name proudly. But after Amazon launched its voice service, also called Alexa, in November 2014, people began speaking to Morales differently. She said they made jokes about her name, giving her commands or asking her questions in a robotic tone.

“When I hear my name now, it’s not good thoughts, it’s like, tensing,” said Morales, 28, a pharmacy technician and student in Bridgeport, Conn.

Nearly 130,000 people in the United States have the name Alexa. It gained popularity after singer Billy Joel and model Christie Brinkley named their daughter Alexa in 1985. In 2015, more than 6,000 baby girls in the United States were named Alexa, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration data.

After Amazon chose Alexa as the wake word of its voice service, the name’s popularity plummeted. In 2020, only about 1,300 babies were given the name. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) When I asked one of the three Alexa devices owned by Morales’s mother, which she has set to different names, about the reason for the decline, it suggested it was “perhaps as a result of its connection to Amazon Echo devices.”

I interviewed more than 25 women and girls named Alexa and several parents of Alexas to see how the voice assistant’s rapid takeover of workplaces and homes had altered their feelings about their name and identity. The Alexas I interviewed ranged in age from 5 to 55, and they live throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and Europe.

[Amazon’s newest products expand its surveillance inside the home]

A few were indifferent to the connection or amused by it. But the majority were tired of interruptions from the bot and by jokes at their expense. In virtual classes, business meetings and at auditions, Alexas said they have been instructed to avoid saying their name or arbitrarily assigned new names.

One Alexa said the teasing and jokes escalated to sexual harassment.

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For me, this was highly personal. My mother named me Alexa after falling in love with the name long before I was born in 1994. I’ve also experienced uncomfortable encounters after Amazon made the name a wake word, including being given commands as if I were the bot. Almost two years ago, I started introducing myself outside of work and family by my middle name, Juliana, because it connects me to the Mexican American side of my family. My grandfather died in 2018. His sister’s name was Julia, so in some ways it feels like a piece of him.

So I could relate to Alexa Morales.

Corado and Alexis Morales were high school sweethearts in Bridgeport, Conn. Corado was 15 and a sophomore in high school when she became pregnant; Morales was 17 and a junior. On Oct. 1, 1992, 3½ months before their daughter was born, Morales was found dead with a single gunshot to the head on an embankment near Interstate 95 in Bridgeport, according to the Associated Press, which said police were investigating.

Their daughter, Alexa Morales, continued to be the target of Alexa jokes and commands even after sharing the story behind her name.

Alexa Jade Morales was named after her slain father, Alexis. (Photo by Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

She found it frustrating when she began encountering the Amazon devices everywhere, including in relatives’ homes and the nursing units of the hospital where she worked.

“It was like, you guys have so much money and so many people working for you and not one person thought to be like, ‘Listen, Alexa is a name that people use,’” Morales said.

By 2018, Morales began to go by Lex. She stopped buying from Amazon, too, partly because of the device name and partly because of what she has heard about the working conditions inside the company’s warehouses.

“I can’t even look at Amazon stuff anymore without wanting to kick the package over,” she said.

Corado understands her daughter’s decision to go by Lex but said it “feels like another connection lost” to her daughter’s father. “He deserved to have his name honored, not to turn it into something belittling to the daughter he never got to hold,” Corado said.

“I’ve heard all the jokes at this point. Someone decided it was funny at work to just call me Siri.”

Alexa Smith, Director of Major Gifts for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

(Photo by Michael Benabib)

‘They just appropriated our name’

Amazon chose the name Alexa because it “was inspired by the Library of Alexandria and is reflective of Alexa’s depth of knowledge,” Lauren Raemhild, a public relations specialist for Amazon, said in a statement, referring to the late-pharaonic-era institution in Egypt. “When choosing a wake word, we considered both technical characteristics from a speech recognition perspective and customer feedback.”

When asked about women who said they were told not to say their name and that they felt dehumanized by the device’s wake word, Raemhild did not respond directly to the question.

Phillip Hunter, the head of user experience for Amazon Alexa Skills from September 2016 to March 2018, said he now recognizes the unintended consequences.

“They were hoping to sort of humanize it, but at the cost of other humans’ feelings,” Hunter said in an interview. “If your product is causing people difficulty, you should figure that out first and reconsider.”

He thinks the wake word should avoid a human name and be changed to “something more utilitarian.”

Other tech companies cast their artificial-intelligence assistants as female. Apple’s Siri was first, in 2011. Microsoft’s Cortana followed. Google’s Assistant initially defaulted to a woman’s voice.

Alexa Hagerty (Photo by Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post)

Alexa Hagerty, an AI ethicist and associate fellow at the University of Cambridge, said female voices are perceived as cooperative, polite and subservient and male voices as authoritative.

“We are reinforcing and naturalizing very problematic gender stereotypes and very problematic ways of speaking to a female voice assistant,” said Hagerty, who is also the co-founder of Dovetail Labs, which applies social science to develop more socially responsible AI systems.

[The love affair between Jeff Bezos and ‘Star Trek’]

The name became a punchline in Amazon’s 2020 Super Bowl ad, “Before Alexa.” In the spot, people with names like Alex, Alexi and Al responded to commands throughout different historical eras.

A brand identity theorist and professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Americus Reed, said that although some brands turn mistakes into opportunity, “I don’t think Amazon’s done much of that.”

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Amazon declined to provide someone to be interviewed but offered this statement that the company gave to the BBC in July for a story about the bullying and harassment of children named Alexa:

“Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. We designed our voice assistant to reflect qualities we value in people — being smart, considerate, empathetic, and inclusive. As an alternative to Alexa, we offer several other wake words customers can choose from, including Echo, Computer, Amazon and Ziggy.”

[Amazon’s new rotating, follow-you camera is useful — and invasive]

Although Amazon offers alternative wake words, not all of the company’s smart devices, including the Echo Auto and Echo Buds, allow for a change. Hundreds more products from outside companies that have Alexa technology built in do not allow a switch of wake word from Alexa.

Alexa W., who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears the release of personal information online if her last name is made public, runs a Twitter account about the name Alexa’s impact. She said that when she realized the wake word on her sister’s Sonos speaker could not be changed, she compiled a list of at least 700 other items with “Alexa built in.”

Amazon confirmed that hundreds of products allow only the use of the wake word Alexa. “We are currently looking into ways to expand wake word options on Alexa built-in devices,” Amazon wrote in a statement.

Facebook Portal and Toyota vehicles are among the products that have Amazon’s Alexa built in. When asked whether alternative wake words would be desirable, Facebook Portal referred The Post’s inquiry to Amazon. A Toyota spokesperson wrote in an email, “Because the in-car Alexa feature is a third party service, we’re obligated to abide by the contractual agreement.”

The wake word can be changed on Amazon Echo speakers and Echo Show devices through its settings or by verbally instructing the device to change its wake word to Amazon, computer, Echo or Ziggy. For example, a user could say, “Alexa, change your name to computer.” On Amazon Fire tablets it can only be changed to Amazon.

“It makes me feel dehumanized. … Everyone else is being called by their name or nickname, and I’m over here being called ‘She Who Shall Not Be Named.’”

Alexa La Bruyere, Florida college student

(Photo by Kimberly Hammond Tysver)

‘It makes me cringe’

But many users aren’t aware that they can change the wake word on some of their devices.

When Alexa García’s courses in Puebla, Mexico, went virtual because of the pandemic, she discovered that her politics professor had a device with Amazon’s Alexa in his home. During the 2021 summer semester, whenever her name was called, the device interrupted with a response, drawing unwanted attention to García and laughter from classmates.

She said the professor appeared annoyed by the interruptions. He unilaterally decided to call her Alex, but that still caused interruptions. (Amazon’s Alexa also can be triggered by similar sounding names, including Alexis, Alexia and Alyssa).

So he started calling her Alé, a nickname that she hates, or by her last name.

“I don’t like it when they change my name. … I don’t feel respected,” García said.

She tried to avoid participating so her name wouldn’t be called.

The name Alexa has “always been a big part of me, and now I cringe, I am uncomfortable every time someone mentions it or every time [the device] responds,” she said.

Alexa García (Photo by Lisette Poole for The Washington Post)

At least seven women named Alexa told me similar stories about people finding it easier to rename them to avoid triggering smart devices. And at least 10 Alexas and several parents of Alexas told me stories of family members, friends and colleagues who leave their devices set to the default wake word even when alternatives are available.

“It’s a flaw that, well, soon as [someone named] Alexa shows up, we have a complicated situation,” said Ahmed Bouzid, who headed Alexa’s Smart Home Product at Amazon from January 2015 to February 2016. He now advises the advocacy group I Am Alexa Alliance, LLC, which is asking Amazon to remove Alexa as a wake word.

Like Hunter, he said that virtual assistants should not be given human names and that Amazon should stop marketing it as Alexa.

“Google, for instance, uses the name of its company for the assistant,” Bouzid said in an email. “Amazon has just launched a new robot that answers to the name “Astro.” It would not be a bad idea to rebrand “Alexa” to “Astro.”

While researching an assignment for her politics class, García saw the BBC article about a family whose daughter Alexa experienced severe bullying because of the wake word — to the point of telling her mother that she wanted to kill herself. The article led García to the “Alexa is a human” Facebook group and a petition campaign started by Lauren Johnson, the mother of a 10-year-old Alexa.

“That, I think, has helped me realize that my name is something important and that I must defend it,” García said. “It’s something very important because I feel like it dehumanizes people.”

“[My boss] started to say, ‘Oh, let’s not use Alexa’s name because it’ll set off the Alexa.’ … I was really starting to think, maybe I should change my name?”

Alexa Weber Morales, Grammy-winning musician and technology journalist

(Courtesy of Alexa Weber Morales)

Alexa commands become explicit

While browsing on Amazon in 2020, Alexa S. saw a car decal from a third-party seller on Amazon with the sexually explicit command, “Alexa, give me a b—job.” Amazon declined to comment about products on its site with pejorative statements about Alexa.

“That’s something I heard, but people said it, and then they would like laugh,” said Alexa S., a 19-year-old university student in Toronto who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because of privacy concerns. “The fact that they sell bumper stickers that say those things, it’s just really disgusting.”

Alexa S. was 16 years old in 2018 when she was asked five different times for sexual favors by teenage boys at a summer camp. “They would say, ‘Alexa, send me nudes,’ ‘Alexa, give me a h—job,’ ‘Alexa, give me a b—job,’” she said in an interview.

One message on a WhatsApp group chat asked about playing a “fun game” that the sender said was called: “Hey Alexa preform [sic] sexual favours.”

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Alexa S. reported the comments anonymously to a camp leader. The camp leader talked to the boys, and they apologized, but the comments still hurt Alexa S.’s self-esteem, she said.

Alexa S. also joined the Alexa is a human Facebook group last year.

“Bullying doesn’t live in a vacuum,” Alexa S. said. “It usually stems from something else. It’s what you see, what you hear, what you experience, what you see is okay from your peers.”

“When I got eliminated, one of the top tweets on The Bachelor was like, ‘Well thank God Alexa went home so my Amazon Echo can chill out.’”

Alexa Rae Caves, Esthetician who appeared on season 24 of ‘The Bachelor’

(Courtesy of Alexa Rae Caves)

Can’t call her ‘Alexa’ in public

When 8-year-old Alexa Newey looked for her name on a keychain at a souvenir shop in Blackpool, England, last July, she was saddened to see magnets with her name used as a command.

“Alexa, order me a takeaway” and “Alexa, feed my child,” the magnets read.

Magnets with Alexa commands at a store. (Photo by Angela Newey)

The same kinds of phrases were used to make fun of her at school, she said.

“Because my name’s Alexa, I feel like people are going to always hate me,” said Alexa, who has ADHD and is tall for her age.

Her mother, Angela Newey, has become used to calling her daughter nicknames such as “kiddo” in public to avoid comments and stares, including, “What’s your daughter’s name?” and “Oh, that’s a bit unfortunate,” she said. Other parents do the same, some using Lex or Lexi for Alexa.

A number of other parents expressed concern about the self-esteem of their children named Alexa. Some parents said they’ve tried to teach their daughters strategies for responding to negative remarks, including making a joke in turn or telling the person making the comment how it makes them feel.

Alexa Newey (Courtesy of Angela Newey)

“They’re sort of growing up with the communication that their name is associated with a servant role,” Christopher Kearney, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said in an interview. “If a teacher is saying something derogatory, even if it’s just as a joke, or it’s to change their name, or … allows other kids to participate in that, it can create a lot of psychological damage.”

[The next generation of home robots will be more capable — and perhaps more social]

Alexa Hepburn, a research professor of communication at Rutgers University who has published widely on school bullying, said the long-term impacts could include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

As Alexa Newey, now 9 years old, started middle school in Britain, where most of the children were new to her, she decided to go by Alex. That’s what most children call her now, so the taunting about her name has become less of a problem, her mother wrote in an email.

“I feel like Amazon took the option of naming my daughter Alexa away from me. I was worried about my daughter being bullied in school if I named her Alexa.”

Alexa Santiago, Service desk associate at Home Depot

(Photo by Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

Formerly known as Alexa

As a 16-year-old auditioning for TV shows and short films, Alexa Brooks was often nervous. But casting directors added to the pressure by telling her not to say her first name to avoid triggering the Amazon smart speaker in the room. They told her they would introduce her by her last name instead.

“It kind of feels like … you’re more of a problem than, like, you’re going to be their solution,” Brooks said.

She said she felt she couldn’t be herself. She wanted to be known for her performance, not as “The girl with the Amazon name.”

She found the perfect opportunity to change her name when she moved from the small town of Healdsburg, Calif., to Los Angeles for her junior year of high school.

She wasn’t alone. I interviewed three sets of parents of Alexas who legally changed their daughters’ names. At least 10 other Alexas, children and adults, started going by nicknames or their middle names.

Brooks’s mother, Melissa Kester, suggested her new name, Harlow, which comes from a line in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes.

She was granted a legal name change last year, a process that costs a few hundred dollars in the United States. But she said she really liked the name Alexa and wouldn’t have changed it if it wasn’t for the Amazon connection.

Harlow Brooks (Photo by Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

“I think there’s something really misogynistic and dehumanizing about it all,” she said.

She’s now in her sophomore year at the University of Southern California and studying film production. Some of her peers know about her name change, and some have questioned it, telling her: “You just changed it because Amazon? That’s kind of stupid.”

But, for the most part, people accept that she’s now Harlow, she said.

Back home in Healdsburg, she’s still known as Alexa, and she has kept it as her middle name. But the now 20-year-old Brooks said there were times that she doubted her decision, until I contacted her for the story.

“It actually brought me a great sense of validation that I’m not crazy, and other people are going through this exact same thing,” Brooks said.

About this story

Reporting and writing by Alexa Juliana Ard; Editing by Jayne Orenstein and Suzanne Goldenberg; Design by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Haley Hamblin and Monique Woo; Graphic reporting by Jeremy Merrill and Kate Rabinowitz; Video reporting and editing by Alexa Juliana Ard and Monica Rodman; Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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