The name Alexa is ranked #65 on the list of the most popular names for girls. I expect that ranking to sink much lower in the years to come. Imagine having every conversation with your daughter interrupted by a machine that says “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand your command.”
I was watching an old Hallmark movie the other day, and the main character was named Alexa. The machine in my kitchen kept waking up to insert comments throughout the show. I thought it was funny, but after reading a few recent articles, I’m not sure.
I watched a news segment on smart homes currently under construction in a California neighborhood. All of them will be built to function with new technology. If you buy one of these homes, you will never need to open your blinds again. You will just simply say, “Alexa, open the blinds.” Instantly, you will hear each window covering in your home rise, allowing the morning sunshine in. This seems like a brilliant idea—until you remember your teenager is still asleep upstairs or your spouse might not be fully dressed in the bedroom.
A smart-home buyer can ask Alexa to clean the den floor. Immediately, the Roomba activates and begins to vacuum. I’m thinking smart-home buyers may have some nervous, agitated pets, or unhappy kids when their Legos vanish into the machine. If you feel a little warm, you simply say, “Alexa, cool the house off,” and the thermostat instantly lowers a degree or two. Doors unlock and televisions can display pictures from various security cameras or tune to your favorite music or movie. And all of this can happen while you remain comfortable in your favorite chair.
You can start your car with a phone app, but it will be important for you to remember to open the garage door first. You can instruct Alexa when you want to wake up or remind you of someone’s birthday. You can tell Alexa when you need a pizza or a ride from Uber. Alexa is listening, all the time. And that is what all of us need to consider.
My Alexa is unplugged right now. I love to ask her to play Christian music while I am working in my kitchen. I enjoyed her Christmas music in December. She can tell me about the traffic on the Tollway or the weather outside. She is handy to have around. Why? Because she is always . . . ALWAYS listening. I enjoyed that, until Jim sent me an article.
There are people, much smarter than I am, who have figured out how to do strange things with Alexa and other artificial intelligence sources. The article said, “Over the last two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money, or buy stuff online — simply with music playing over the radio.”
Are smart homes a smart idea? Do we want machines to control our devices in exchange for the freedom to control our lives? We do live in some interesting times, with interesting choices. I had to consider the question, “Do I really want something to be listening to everything I might be saying?”
Almost immediately, I thought about God. He does listen to everything I say. He also sees everything I do. I work pretty hard to lead a decent life, but there is no way I want to give a random tech device the chance to hear every word I say at any moment of the day. The only One I trust to have enough grace for my daily sins is the Lord.
The prophet Isaiah said, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). Alexa will do what I ask but doesn’t understand why I am asking. God does. Alexa isn’t “working” right now, because I unplugged her until I choose to need her. God is never “unplugged” from my life. I can’t do anything to remove his power because God is the power, and “he does not faint or grow weary.”
Alexa is without any power right now, because I decided to make that choice. I have the choice because God created me with the power to choose. As technology advances, our power to choose seems to be the price of convenience. But, our power to choose is the God-given and God-created difference between people and everything else in the world.
When God created Adam and Eve, he already knew that one day someone would create “Alexa.” Is that why Scripture is careful to remind us, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7–10). No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, it is still artificial. Alexa is listening, but so is the perfect, Creator God.
I can see the benefits of smart homes, especially in meeting the needs of the aging or people with disabilities, but I also see downsides to the technology. Do I really need a machine to open my windows, or do I simply enjoy the power of issuing a command? Is it healthy for my brain to ask a device to remember for me? Do I really want tech geniuses throughout the world to have access to my home and life? Or, do I simply want the current advances in technology to remind me of the highest intelligence in the world?
God is always listening, always interested, always available, and always Lord. We will always have the choice to live under his grace and choose to be controlled by his Holy Spirit—or something less. I will still plug Alexa in when I need her. But I will unplug her when I don’t. Interestingly, she is unplugged most of the time, another reminder that the only one I need to know is listening is God. He has all the power He needs—all of the time.