Amazon responds after Alexa encourages dangerous penny challenge


Amazon Echos are very common smart home devices. The smart speakers provide convenient access to music, control over smart home devices, and quick answers to questions – they can be quite helpful. But these devices are far from perfect, as illustrated by an Alexa device encouraging a ten-year-old to participate in the penny challenge, where you use a penny to touch the prongs of a plug connected to a wall outlet.

The Alexa device pulled the information about this challenge (which is obviously dangerous, and should not be attempted) from the web, as it often does when asked questions.

The child’s parent explained on Twitter:

We were doing some physical challenges, like laying down and rolling over holding a shoe on your foot, from a Phy Ed teacher on YouTube earlier. Bad weather outside. She just wanted another one.

Here’s what the Alexa device said in response to the child’s query “tell me a challenge to do”:

Here’s something I found on the web. According to The challenge is simple: plug in a phone charger about halfway into a wall outlet, then touch a penny to the exposed prongs.

The quote is pulled, not from a website encouraging the challenge (which spread around social media last year), but from this page, which is entitled, “Watch Out, Parents—the Viral ‘Outlet Challenge’ Has Kids Doing the Unthinkable!”

The page proceeds to warn about the challenge and follows the quote that the Alexa device read with, “the resulting sparks are supposed to be cool enough to win you instant internet fame. (Obviously, do NOT attempt this!)

While it is understandable how a computer trained on keyword recognition may make a mistake like this, it is dangerous nonetheless and highlights the importance of human oversight in these systems – especially when they are aimed towards children.

In a statement to the BBC, Amazon confirmed it has made a change to prevent Alexa from recommending these activities and said:

Customer trust is at the center of everything we do and Alexa is designed to provide accurate, relevant, and helpful information to customers.

Now, in response to similar queries my Alexa device has offered various answers ranging from recommending the skill “Fortnite Challenge Roulette” to providing the definition of the word “challenge,” but no recommendations to participate in any dangerous challenges.

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