May 11, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 11, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Alexa, Get Ready for Shabbat!

Alexa, is it possible to write a column on home technology without inevitably discussing the Amazon Echo?

When Amazon introduced its digital voice assistant, the Echo, affectionately known as Alexa, in June 2015, it was a game changer. It caught consumers and tech giants like Apple by surprise and upended the home technology industry. I was testing lighting and home automation devices at the time and was surprised to receive an invite to be an early beta tester for the Echo. I often received skeptical questions from my supportive wife: is it too difficult to press a button that you need to use voice control? But as the Alexa app log demonstrates, she is a convert! “Alexa, how many teaspoons in an ounce?” “Alexa, play my favorite station on Pandora.” “Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes.” “Alexa, turn off all kitchen lights.” And my least favorite, “Alexa, what time does the mall close?” Wait, “logs” you ask? Yes, Alexa is listening and recording, always!

While recording voice logs in your home raises many privacy concerns, I have learned that in home automation, privacy is what you give up for convenience, much like other technology we have already grown accustomed to. To be fair, the logs are only sent back to Amazon when you preface your sentence with the wake-up word, Alexa. However, to hear the word Alexa, the Echo must always be listening. In certain models of the Echo, the device moves from audio logs to video logs, which can raise an eyebrow even further. I won’t go there, yet.

The always-listening feature does bring us to an important Shabbat question: Does one have to turn Alexa off for Shabbat if it is always actively listening and evaluating? I posed this question to Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman of the Zomet Institute in Israel (zomet.org) and he responded that “Since Alexa is always listening by capturing all sound in its vicinity and analyzing it to determine if it contains the trigger word Alexa, all speech triggers a function within the device. Although on Shabbat one might not care for this function, as one will (at least try their best) to not say ‘Alexa,’ it is a function that they very much want during the week. Therefore, even Alexa’s normal functioning on Shabbat would raise serious concerns, even if her name is never stated.” In other words, the Zomet Institute position on the Echo is that it is not permissible to have the Echo on in your home on Shabbat.

I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun and he agreed with Zomet and responded that “It’s possible to argue that you would not have to, because mere talking is a מתכוון  שאינו  דבר and your actions are not triggering any discernible response. Others would argue that if there is some electronic response, it’s a פסיק רישיה דלא ניחא ליה because he doesn’t benefit at all from the non-response. [That is not something that is necessarily permissible under all circumstances.] On the other hand, if you can avoid a פסיק רישיה by turning off the device before Shabbat altogether, one should.”

From my own user experience, I have encountered practical reasons that you would always want to find a solution to turn the Echo off for Shabbat. I have had the device mishear the word Alaska as Alexa during the Shabbat meal. I have also had the device play random music without prompt. I have heard comparable stories from other users. What do you do on Rosh Hashanah when Alexa randomly starts playing music, as one user described? Daven (out loud) to Hashem and ask for “Alexa to stop” and hope for a miracle?

I therefore recommend you always have an Alexa Shabbat plan. You can certainly unplug the device for Shabbat. Amazon is keenly aware of the privacy issue that their devices present and prominently offer on all versions of the Echo a mute button that will turn off the microphones and video if applicable. This would be effective in addressing Shabbat concerns. An important voice command feature that is noticeably absent from the Echo is the ability to ask Alexa to stop listening. Sure, you can physically push the mute button, but that is counter to the entire premise of the Echo. A routine that would allow you to say, “Alexa, get ready for Shabbat” and would trigger a series of actions, including turning off the microphones in all devices, would be a welcome addition to the service for Shabbat and non-Shabbat observers alike. My technical recommendation for now is to turn the automation technology against itself and have the Echo device plugged into a smart switch or outlet that turns itself off for Shabbat (see previous articles at tribetechreview.wordpress.com). This is what I have implemented, and it is effective. Upon turning the device on for Havdalah, the device wakes without any need for re-configuration. Perhaps when Amazon sees many devices going offline for Shabbat it will add this feature.

Honestly, I think this problem will become even more difficult to address in the future as more traditional appliances and gadgets around your home will come embedded with Alexa. Amazon makes it clear that this is their strategy and offers a free integration tool kit to make it easy for manufacturers to implement. Google is right behind Amazon as their search engine empire is at risk as searches move from computers and phones to voice-based devices (and the Google home device will have the same Shabbat issues). Refrigerators, thermostats, speakers, washers and dryers will likely all have voice recognition embedded. Some already do. The Consumer Electronics Show this year in Las Vegas was all about Amazon and Google voice integration. Hopefully, voice recognition will improve to the point that unprompted actions will no longer be an issue, but having listening devices all over your home might be inevitable, and muting each of them every week will not be easy.

The good news is that the Echo is always learning new skills and commands. Features are updated on a weekly basis. My first-generation device has all the software updates of the latest generation. A device that can be purchased for as little as $29 and gets better each week is very compelling. I look forward to the week when the Shabbat mode feature is released and Alexa observes a day of needed rest. We are living in a Star Trek world and we will need to adapt if we want to continue to live on the ship while remaining in Avraham’s tent. I will likely spend a few articles discussing Alexa, but until next time, live long and prosper. Shabbat shalom!

By Dov Pavel

 Dov Pavel is a tech enthusiast who is not affiliated with any of the companies whose products he reviews. The opinions he expresses are solely his own. Dov is not a halachic authority. Readers should consult their own rabbi as needed. Dov lives in Teaneck with his wife and three children.

 

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles