This year, around 4,250 Alexas in the U.S. are turning five. On Nov. 6, 2014, Amazon unveiled the voice-computing system that can now monitor more than 85,000 distinct devices. According to a company blog post marking its birthday, about 10,000 employees work at Amazon on different parts of the technology infrastructure, which is used by tens of millions of clients each month.
According to Social Security Administration results, in 2015, the year after Amazon Alexa debuted, Alexa was the 32nd most popular female baby name in the U.S., awarded to 6,052 newborns that year.
Alexa has since decreased in popularity as a baby name. Alexa’s baby girls will become less so as the Alexa device becomes more ubiquitous, said Pamela Redmond, co-founder of Nameberry’s platform for baby names. Thousands of other babies are called variants like Alexandra and Alexis each year, the latter peaking in 1999 as the third most common female baby name. For some of the other Alexas, the arrival of the voice-computing system and its microphone-equipped computer was a slight irritation.
On Nameberry, one writes that she loves her name, but now wishes everyone called her Lexi. Meeting someone under the age of 12 or over the age of 45 means thinking, after I introduce myself, ‘Yeah, like Amazon Alexa’.
Baby naming patterns are influenced by pop culture, but not necessarily in predictable ways, Redmond said. Kylo was one of the fastest-rising names last year, as in [Star Wars character] Kylo Ren, even though the character was not purely optimistic, she said. In fact, in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Kylo Ren kills his father. The name, however, reached the top 1,000 male baby names in 2016, rising to 865 in 2018. The name reached the top 1,000 male names of infants.
As a tribute to the Library of Alexandria, Amazon called its voice-computing technology Alexa, a company spokeswoman said. Amazon also commercially owns the name, having purchased Alexa Internet in 1999, which rates websites by traffic and offers marketing resources, and which was also named in honour of the Egyptian library, an important information store in the ancient world.
According to LinkedIn, more than 50 humans called Alexa currently work at Amazon.
Alexa ended up with a female voice and persona, Amazon managers have claimed, because that’s what early voice testing customers wanted. So far, the company has not provided the choice of an assistant with a male voice.
If your name is Alexa, it should be noted: you can adjust the “wake word” that triggers the interface to Echo, Amazon, or a computer, evoking the Star Trek ambient voice-controlled computer system that Alexa is based on.
On any Alexa-enabled device, however, that option is apparently not yet available.
I just got my Echo Auto and found that after setting it up, I was unable to change the wake word the same way I modified my other devices in the building, one person wrote on Amazon’s device forum in September. My daughter’s name is Alexa, so it really is a deal-breaker for me not to be able to change that.
There are far fewer common names for other female-identified digital assistants. Initially, Siri, the name given to the Apple assistant that debuted in 2011, and Cortana, which was released in 2014 by Microsoft, were extremely uncommon names, Redmond said. They have been less famous since: in the U.S. in 2018, 20 baby girls were called Siri and five were named Cortana, Redmond said.
Alexa was first seen on YouTube in a commercial on Nov. 6, 2014. Multiple parodies that replaced the voice of Alexa followed quickly. Amazon took the ad down later. The original commercial was uploaded by YouTube user Smart Home in 2016.
When Jennifer Clark realised that Amazon’s Alexa was ruining the life of her eight-year-old daughter in July, when her baby came home from the Bible camp, it was an experience that the child had been looking forward to for months. “I happened to have my laptop with Amazon open, and I was shopping. On my phone, she saw the name Alexa,” Clark remembers, referring to an Amazon Echo system ad.
“That’s my name. I don’t like this one. They always tease me”.
“They always pretend that I am the Alexa machine.”
For Clark, it was a heartbreaking moment, but even so, as a result of sharing a name with Amazon’s popular software bot, Alexa, she did not realise the full extent of what her daughter was going through. In 2014, when the kid was three, the Amazon smart speaker device featuring Alexa was released, and no one knew then what a global phenomenon it would become.
Clark, who is an educator with a background in child development, just put the teasing tale of the camp down to children being children at first.
But then she began to pay attention and saw the teasing’s repetitive essence. It wasn’t just the camp kids. There were children and adults everywhere: the children at kindergarten, the teacher of her daughter, the adults at the store if Clark called out the name of her daughter, and so on.
Clark remembers that it slammed her in the face. It’s not just a bit of teasing here. This is an entirely different dimension. And she isn’t alone. To honour his grandfather, Alexander, the father named his four-year-old daughter Alexa. The Amazon Echo system containing Alexa software had only been around for a little over a year at that time. But “we have been amazed at the speed and popularity of the device” in the past year, he says, asking that his name be withheld to protect the privacy of his family.
The issue is that, for its artificially intelligent computer with a woman’s voice, Amazon chose a rather common name.
Names like Cortana, Google Assistant and Bixby were chosen by other tech companies with similar virtual assistant products. But Amazon selected a human name that was among the top 75, and often the top 50, baby names in the English-speaking world during the previous decade. There were tens of thousands of kids called Alexa already out there.
The outrage over a name could seem like a minor grievance at a period when tech giants are under fierce scrutiny for violating user privacy, spreading disinformation on their networks and creating addictive goods. But Amazon’s actions and seeming indifference to the real-world implications is a very personal and never-ending reminder of the influence that the tech industry has over our lives for the people affected by the common name.
One 18-year-old high school student named Alexa said that the boys at school started teasing her by asking her to do sexual favours in the same tone, in addition to the usual Alexa do-this-or-that jokes that come from everyone all the time: “Alexa, give me a-” she says.
This teen claims that she’s mature enough and confident enough to cope with the usual sort of bullying and attempts to let her back roll off it. She also says she knows that because of her name, she’s not the only girl to be abused. Girls with names in songs at school get the same sort of harassment, she says. The difference is that the success of a song comes and goes, but Alexa is now everywhere and only seeming to be increasing in popularity on smartphones.
Amazon is determined to position the Alexa assistant everywhere, expanding to clocks, microwave ovens and even glasses far beyond smart speakers. Amazon executive David Limp told The New York Times in September that there’s no excuse to place them anywhere in your building. And with that comes double comprehension. “For example, when smart showerheads and waterproof speakers were released by plumbing manufacturers, the headlines went immediately to “Will you invite Alexa into the shower? “and “Alexa, with me, take a shower!” These are not the kinds of statements that young girls’ parents, or even adult women, want to deal with all day, every day.
“It’s a sweet name. And it ought not to have been taken. It makes me so mad”, says another person named Alexa. “A lot of kids will be bullied because of this. They are still being bullied.”
The name has been so vilified that, Johnson says, I just read an article on baby naming that compared the name of Alexa to Bin Laden.
Limp has previously said the name is a little reminiscent of Alexander’s library, which was at one time the keeper of all information, as to why Amazon chose Alexa for the name of its AI unit. He says the name was also chosen by the Amazon team because they felt it was a word that people did not use often and assumed that the soft vowels combined with an ‘x’ made the name sound very special as a wake word. Amazon also owned a business that had been purchased several years ago by Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, called Alexa Internet (still in operation today). Kahle once informed Recode that the company was also named after Alexander’s library, but Limp said that there was no connection that prompted Amazon to call its AI the same name as the company owned by Amazon.
The parents were working with the 3-year-old to choose a new name. “You can call me Aria now,” and if her dad forgets, she says, “Silly Daddy, I’m not Alexa, I’m Aria now.” She is young enough to roll with it, telling her family, “You can call me Aria now.” The 18-year-old claims she doesn’t want her name changed. It’s part of her identity and she likes it. Clark, whose daughter is school-aged, want to change the name of her daughter legally. Clarks have “made the financial sacrifice” to put their daughter in a private school where bullying is not tolerated, Clark says, aiming to better protect her.