Alexa can’t vote, but Amazon’s digital assistant can help you do it.
In the run-up to election day in the U.S. (Nov. 6, if you weren’t sure), Amazon is giving Alexa a more civic mind by beefing up the assistant’s knowledge base of election data, including where to vote, real-time results, and even explanations of ballot measures.
Now you’ll be able to ask Alexa where your polling place is or who’s leading in any particular race, and it’ll respond with a real answer instead of just kicking you to a web search.
On the surface, the effort sounds rather benign — even anodyne — but even the mechanics of elections these days are fraught with politics. From attempted voting machine hacks to social media misinformation campaigns, technology and elections don’t have the greatest relationship right now. Of all the subjects Alexa could help with, why elections?
“Customers have always asked Alexa a lot of questions about major current events,” Bill Barton, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa information, told Mashable in answers to emailed questions. “We saw high customer engagement with the 2016 presidential debates and election, and we thought we could expand and improve upon the experience.”
Besides keeping the information decidedly nonpartisan, the main way Amazon is ensuring the veracity of the election information is by outsourcing it. It has three main partners for the effort: Ballotpedia for pre-election ballot information, RealClearPolitics for polling updates, and the Associated Press for elections results, including real-time info in individual races. Barton says they were the “most credible, neutral sources” Amazon could find.
When I asked Barton about whether Alexa could provide information on voting requirements in particular areas, in particular controversial voter ID laws in some jurisdictions, he said it was an “interesting idea” but that it wasn’t something Amazon offered.
He similarly deflected a question about whether Alexa could tell voters what voting machines were being used in their area, which some voters might want to know for various reasons, but the recent focus on possible voting machine hacks in particular. “We focused on the areas of where we see the most customer interest and need,” Barton said, explaining info about voting machines was not something Alexa offered.
Got it. Just keep it simple: Who’s on the ballot? Where can I vote? What are the results? It’s understandable that Amazon wouldn’t want to even tiptoe close to the more contentious parts of electioneering, and anyone wanting information about something Alexa doesn’t cover can always look it up online on another device. Still, it’s a shame Amazon decided to simply shy away from reasonable questions voters might have about election-related topics in the news.
Points for Amazon, at least, for not being completely naïve. Election info gets more crucial the closer we get to election day, and Barton says Amazon has assembled its own “war room” of data scientists, engineers, and writers to monitor the effort to ensure the information Alexa is providing is accurate. It’s a move that echoes a similar one by Facebook, which is actively trying to fight election misinformation on its network.
In a sense, Amazon’s move could be seen as a part of that effort. While Amazon hasn’t been implicated as directly as Facebook or Twitter, many people are more wary of how deeply technology has been embedded in our lives in recent years, Alexa included. In a small way, Alexa’s new election upgrade may help ease that skepticism.
That is, as long as Amazon gets it right.