If you pick up your iPhone and ask Apple’s personal assistant software the age of Mets third baseman David Wright, you get a direct answer: Wright, born in 1982, is 34 years old. You also get some ancillary information: A photo, his height, a nickname that no one uses.
Ask Google’s artificially intelligent question-answering system, same deal. David Wright is 34.
But until Monday evening if you were to ask the same question of Alexa, the Amazon system that powers the company’s Echo devices, you got a much different response. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
David Wright, according to Alexa/Echo, is 234 years old — by far the oldest person on the Mets roster or in professional baseball or in the recorded history of the human race. Wright may be injured a lot, but that’s only because he’s older than the Constitution of the United States.
The Alexa app suggests that maybe you’d like to learn more about Wright at Microsoft’s search engine Bing. If you do so, you learn that Wright is … 34 years old.
I first noticed this bug back when David Wright was only 233. At my sister’s house, we were for some reason suddenly curious about how old the Mets all-star was, so we asked her Echo, which stands in the corner of her living room. “Alexa,” we said, triggering the device to listen, “how old is David Wright?” When we learned he was over two centuries old, we were obviously intrigued. Over time, we’d ask the same question repeatedly, to see if the error was fixed. Repeatedly, it was not.
It is now, because, at long last, I reached out to Amazon to try to figure out where the problem was. Over email and on the phone, the company’s Art Pettigrue explained how Alexa works — and why, in this case, it didn’t.
So let’s walk through what happened, step by step.
When you make a request of an Echo device (I have the hockey-puck-sized Dot), you get it to listen by prefacing your request with a “wake word,” usually “Alexa.” (Recently, the company expanded the list of wake words it accepts to include “Echo” and “Computer.”) It’s always listening to what you say, but it doesn’t do anything until you say the wake word — which is why it’s called a “wake” word.
At that point, the device begins recording what you are saying, isolating the request you’ve made.
The Echo doesn’t do anything with that question itself. It simply ships the question off to Amazon over the Internet in the form of an audio recording. Once it’s at Amazon, the processing begins.
First, Pettigrue explained, Alexa figures out what you’re trying to ask. This is harder than it may sound, requiring the system to pick out a consistent phrase from background noise of conflicting speech patterns. If you’re listening to music as you ask your question, for example, Alexa needs to understand that you’re asking “how old is David Wright” not “how old I shot the is David Wright sheriff but I.”
Amazon calls this “automatic speech recognition.”
Then once Alexa has your question, it figures out what exactly you’re asking. In this case, the system needs to understand that I’m looking for the age of someone named David Wright. The Amazon term here is “natural language understanding.”
“A human being is very good at disambiguating multiple responses,” Pettigrue explained, “but with a voice interface you want to try to make the one, right choice from the very beginning for them.”
So now Alexa knows what we’re looking for. At this point, the system dips into “a variety of trusted sources” (per Pettigrue) to figure out an answer, if possible.
In this case, it’s clear that Alexa knew which David Wright I was referring to, given that the response was exactly 200 years off. (Pettigrue said that he’d tried to track down other possible David Wrights with whom Alexa might be confusing the Met — without luck.) It’s just that, in the database, Wright’s year of birth was incorrect, apparently identifying him as having been born in 1782, at the tail end of the Revolutionary War.
Pettigrue said that this was a function of data being input incorrectly by a human user, but was “not able to share the exact source of the error.” (It has, as noted above, already been corrected.)
Once Amazon has its answer — correct or not — it uses a text-to-speech tool called Alexa Voice Service to convert the answer into an audio file that gets passed back to your Echo.
When it receives that audio file, your Echo plays it, informing you that David Wright is 234 years old, which he isn’t.
There is a saying in the computing world: Garbage in, garbage out. Computers — even sophisticated artificial intelligence systems — are simply connections and calculators that manipulate raw data that they are given. Amazon’s Alexa does a very good job of figuring out what you’re asking it, analyzing English language speech patterns to pick out what particular (admittedly simple) question you’re hoping it will answer. But if it’s pulling information from a database that has a garbage birth date for the person you’re wondering about, it will spit out a garbage answer.
The good news for Mets fans is that David Wright is not 234 years old. The bad news is that, once again, he’s on the disabled list.
Illustrations above are from The Noun Project, including illustrations from contributors anbileru adaleru, Thengakola, Javier Cabezas, Jony, Lluisa Iborra and Lorena Salagre. Photo of Wright is from the Associated Press.