Amazon's insufferably smug Super Bowl ad is truly annoying

For the Big Game, Amazon wants you to consider how great Alexa is. But once you start considering it, perhaps she isn't so great.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Ho. Ho. Ho. Alexa is so great.

Screenshot by ZDNet

Lawyers always tell me that you should never ask a question in court if you're not sure of the answer.

With its customary overconfidence, Amazon may not have heeded that advice before America's largest and most impartial jury -- the Super Bowl audience.

The company's Super Bowl ad, you see, purports to be a homage to how wonderful Alexa is. Here we have celebrity couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi going on a night on De Town.

As Degeneres gets Alexa to turn down the thermostat, she muses: "What do you think people did before Alexa?"

There then follow scenes from history in which people just couldn't cope without artificial intelligence. Paralyzed they were. So much so that they perpetrated strange acts such as breaking windows to make a room cooler. And talking to each other. Surely you've heard of those days -- or even remember them.

The ad offers a joke about the news of old being fake. As if Alexa will now provide you with a startling new fact-checking service. There's also a joke about Alexa being able to supply you with jokes because the humans of the past just weren't funny.

Richard Nixon even appears. Or, rather, a Richard Nixon joke about the tape-recording deletion. If he were alive today, would Alexa have helped him? Or would she have kept a recording of everything? Just to improve the service, you understand.

Please forgive me for being a nuisance, but the more I focused on answering Amazon's smug question, the more troubling answers emerged. What did we do before Alexa came along? Well, we were so, so stupid.

Why we put CDs into machines, we sometimes listened to music on iPods and we actually owned the music we paid for. Quaint, no?

We walked over to wall-mounted switches to let there be light.

If we were cold, we lit fires or walked over to the thermostat and turned it up. Sometimes, we synchronized this action by turning the light on. It was a good exercise. Moreover, we knew which light we wanted to turn on without having to specify it out loud. We never turned on the bedroom light when we meant to turn on the kitchen light.

When it came to skills, we learned them quite quickly without assuming that an unattractive little machine in the corner would do astonishing things for us. Such as opening the puzzle of the day, playing NPR, or showing travel videos on YouTube. We knew how to do those things already.

We set a timer on a microwave by, oh, punching some numbers onto a keypad. We worked out the time by looking at a watch, a clock or a phone. There were plenty of them around. Some were even pretty.

And we tried to find reliable news and information on our own, rather than let Alexa's dubious -- they all are -- algorithm find it for us.

We also didn't think to ask a machine to shoot video through our Ring "smart" doorbell, so that we might catch a neighbor doing something we could embarrass them with, or even doing something possibly illegal -- or just something we didn't like -- and giving the footage to the police.

Most of all, we weren't so afraid that a machine like Alexa was listening in to every one of our private conversations at home and following us night and day, to, oh, get to know us better. We'd walk down the street not fearing that one of Alexa's friends at Amazon would be trying to identify us via (unreliable) facial recognition.

Please, I know you think I'm being unduly harsh and trying to preserve my pristine lawn. After all, this is just a Super Bowl ad and technology always makes things better.

But I'm fond of defending people's actual, ridiculous humanity and this ad is, quite simply, snorting that machines are so much more enlightening than people. Gosh, Facebook has proved that so often.

The world wasn't perfect before Alexa came along, of course. We did get bored more and we were forced to talk to people with astounding frequency.

Then again, has Alexa really made things so much better? Or has she merely made surveillance so much easier and us so much lazier?

AI, cybersecurity, programming languages, smart speakers, and more: Research round-up

Editorial standards