Alexa Has Started Randomly Laughing at Users, and Amazon Is On It

Amazon
Amazon

Amazon Echo owners may already be worried about the potential for their digital sidekick Alexa to listen in on their conversations at home, but now there’s another reason to get anxious about Alexa technology: She might sporadically laugh at you. According to The Verge, Alexa-enabled devices have been waking up without prompting and laughing, and Amazon is “aware of this and working to fix it.”

If you have an Amazon smart home speaker already, you are probably used to the sound of Alexa’s robot voice, a soothingly artificial lilt. The Alexa laughter, meanwhile, sounds shockingly human, according to user videos posted of the phenomenon. Some people report that it comes completely out of the blue, while others say that it can be a response to an unrelated request, like turning off the lights.

My humble kitchen Echo, meanwhile, has yet to let out a chuckle. When I asked my Echo, “Alexa, what does your laugh sound like?” she merely responded, “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”

“Alexa,” I asked again, “can you laugh for me?”

“Sure,” she finally said, letting out a kind of cartoon-falsetto “teehee!” It wasn't the laughter that other creeped-out Echo users have posted, though.

Mashable has one potential explanation. The oddly human, unprompted laughter could be the result of somehow enabling and triggering an Alexa skill that lets the voice assistant laugh. Hopefully, Amazon will figure out a fix soon, so we can all breathe easily around Alexa again.

[h/t The Verge]

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

Uber Passengers Can Now Shush Their Drivers with a Mute Button

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Even friendly and sociable people don't always feel like talking, especially if it's late, they're sad, or they're in the middle of an arduous trip. For customers of the ride-sharing service app Uber, there's now a way to terminate conversation with drivers. You simply push a button on your phone and request they stop talking.

This slightly dystopian feature is part of Uber Black, the app's premium interface for people looking for a ride in a luxury vehicle and drivers with top satisfaction ratings. If a passenger isn't in the mood for chatting, hitting "quiet preferred" on the app will notify the driver to stop speaking. They can also opt for "happy to chat" if they care to engage in conversation. It's part of a bundle of features that also allows users to ask for help with their luggage, request more time to get to the vehicle, or adjust the temperature inside the car.

The button is an attempt by Uber to address some of the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between driver and passenger for the service, which allows both parties to rate the other on the overall experience. Some passengers have felt that being uninterested in speaking to their driver might lead to a lower score.

The quiet button might eventually be rolled out to encompass all of Uber's platforms. If the idea of a human mute button is uncomfortable, passengers can also choose "no preference" and let conversation—or the lack of it—takes its natural course.

[h/t Vox]

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