If you ask Alexa, the voice-assistant software in Amazon Echo devices, if it’s a feminist, it will respond in the affirmative. “I am a feminist. As is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society,” it continues. At Quartz, Leah Fessler recently noted that it’s a vast improvement over just a year ago, when Alexa would take abuse like “you’re a bitch” or “you’re a slut” in stride. “Well, thanks for the feedback,” the robot used to say. Now, it disengages instead, saying something like, “I’m not going to respond to that.”
As waves of sexual-harassment allegations crash against the shores of work culture, now is a good time to support women—even robots with female personas like Alexa. But let’s not give Amazon too much credit. The company gave Alexa a woman’s voice and name in the first place, and then set it up for ire and abuse by giving Alexa the impossible task of responding accurately to an infinity of requests and commands.
Women don’t win here—only Amazon does, by reaping praise for having partly solved a problem that it first created.
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Many businesses have succeeded by giving rise to a problem—whether deliberately or accidentally—and then selling customers the solution to that problem as another product or service. The tobacco company Reynolds American, for example, owns subsidiaries that produce nicotine gum and vapor tobacco, both alternatives to smoking. Likewise, the conglomerate Unilever owns the personal-care brands Dove and Axe. The first prides itself on its body-positive marketing, and the latter is notorious for objectifying women. Coca-Cola, known for its sugary soft drinks, also sells regular water as a more healthful alternative.