Amazon Alexa Recommends Deadly Challenge to 10-Year-Old Girl

By Ashok Ramprasad | December 31, 2021
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Close-up of Amazon Echo Dot third generation smart speaker with Alexa on light wooden surface, Lafayette, California, with charging cable visible, December 4, 2021. Photo courtesy Tech Trends. Alexa’s challenge to a 10-year-old could have seriously damaged the child. (Image: Gado/Getty Images)

Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is a popular device in many American households. It can perform an array of functions like playing music, controlling smart home devices, setting alarms, and responding to voice commands among others. Although the benefits of the artificial intelligence (AI) enabled device are manifold, it can also prove to be dangerous at times, especially for kids.

Kristin Livdahl, the mother of a 10-year-old girl, experienced the shock of her life when the device asked her daughter to try out a dangerous challenge. The mother wrote on Twitter, “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. Bad weather outside. She just wanted another one.”

Livdahl’s screenshot that was posted on Twitter revealed that Alexa told her daughter to plug a phone charger halfway into a socket and touch the prongs with a penny. Fortunately, as the mother was present at the time of the interaction, no harm occurred. 

Known as the “penny challenge,” the viral stunt has been trending for over a year on TikTok and other social media platforms. It can create sparks, scorch electrical outlets, and cause fires. Firefighters in the U.S. have warned against the act as it could lead to severe burns and even death.

Alexa sources information from the web in order to respond to questions it does not have the answer to. In this case, Alexa was using information from a third-party website called OurCommunityNow.com. 

“Customer trust is at the center of everything we do and Alexa is designed to provide accurate, relevant, and helpful information to customers. As soon as we became aware of this error, we quickly fixed it, and are taking steps to help prevent something similar from happening again,” An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Fox News.

This incident highlights the loopholes of AI-based devices. It also serves as a reminder to parents to monitor their children when it comes to the usage of technology. Children should be made aware that they shouldn’t do something just because Alexa or some other voice-based device asks them to do it.

Gary Marcus, an AI expert said on Twitter on Dec. 29 that the incident proves the AI systems are devoid of common sense. “No current AI is remotely close to understanding the everyday physical or psychological world…What we have now is an approximation to intelligence, not the real thing, and as such it will never really be trustworthy,” he later told CNBC via Twitter.

When it comes to analyzing the web for content, Amazon isn’t the only company facing problems. A screenshot shared by a Twitter user in October showed Google giving harmful instructions with regard to how to handle seizures.     

Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organization that works to protect the rights and interests of customers, warns that tech like Alexa and Google assistant are always spying on people. The AIs are listening from the time they are turned on, aiming to get as much data as possible for advertising purposes.  

With Amazon already facing considerable pressure due to concerns over Alexa privacy, the recent event might discourage people from buying the virtual assistant and prompt some existing users to pull the plug.