Amazon Alexa’s web search results told a child to play with a power outlet
Amazon’s Alexa digital voice assistant has had its fair share of valid criticism over the years, especially regarding how voice clips are recorded and stored. However, Alexa is now under fire for a completely different issue: it told a young child to play with a wall power outlet (sort of).
Just like Google Assistant, Bixby, and just about every other digital assistant, Alexa can give you search results from the internet when it doesn’t have its own response to a certain question — asking “what’s the weather” will give you an Alexa response, but hyper-specific prompts like “what processor does the new MacBook Pro use?” will usually require Alexa to perform a web search. The answers are only as helpful as search results, and in this case, the results weren’t overly helpful.
Kristin Livdahl on Twitter posted a screenshot (via Gizmodo) from the Alexa app on Sunday, which shows that when her 10 year old child asked Alexa “tell me a challenge to do,” Alexa responded with “Here’s something I found on the web. According to ourcommunitynow.com: The challenge is simple: plug in a phone charger about halfway into a wall outlet, then touch a penny to the exposed prongs.”
Alexa was reading a news article from January 2020 that described a TikTok challenge, in which people were encouraged to insert pennies into wall outlets. It’s not clear why Alexa chose that article as the best result — Amazon’s virtual assistant reportedly uses Bing for web searches, and searching Bing for that question places other articles and videos in the top results.
Amazon told Indy100 in a statement, “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 took swift action to fix it.” Sure enough, asking Alexa “tell me a challenge to do” now responds with a generic error message.
Even though the search results weren’t directly from Amazon, the problem does highlight the growing difficulty with children using digital assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant. Alexa does have an optional mode specifically for children, but that still has plenty of third-party content that Amazon might not be validating, such as third-party Skills and results for questions.