'Alexa, make an elephant sneeze noise.' | KUOW News and Information

'Alexa, make an elephant sneeze noise.'

May 2, 2018

I debated whether to share this fart story with you, because farts are – unfairly, in my opinion – maligned as juvenile and bad manners. But I decided in favor, because farts are one of life’s daily inevitabilities, and also because farts are hilarious.

Amazon agrees, apparently, because if you ask Alexa to make a fart sound, she will oblige.

Stella Starkey of Seattle (say that five times fast) asks Alexa to do this about once a week. I work with Stella’s mom, Jeannie Yandel, here at KUOW.

“Alexa, make a fart noise,” Stella will say. Sometimes she’ll specify the kind of fart she’d like to hear. 

“I remember three to four distinct fart sounds,” Jeannie said. “Like, a quick loud one, a long drawn-out one, and a quiet-ish one that gets louder."

Stella’s dad, Aaron Starkey, discovered that Alexa will fart on command about a month ago. Aaron, who owns a web development company, bought the device to test it for a client.

“I was going through different absurdist things it could do. If you were creating an AI” – artificial intelligence – “device, how much does it understand what you’re asking it? Are there cultural or social parameters that are baked into it?” he wondered.


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May 2, 2018 at 11:09am PDT

Hmm, yes, I said. But what about the farts? Would he mind describing those? (I am a very serious journalist.)

Aaron paused. “I don’t know if I want to be on the record as describing fart sounds,” he said. “It was less about the fart thing – and more, ‘Is each question a blank question? Does it respond with the same thing?’”

Aaron referenced idempotence, which roughly means you get the same response each time you conduct a specific operation. Alexa is not idempotent. That is, Alexa responds with slightly different answers each time she is asked a question. (I may have just butchered that concept, and for that I apologize. Then again, you have made it this far into a story about farts.)

Aaron also asked Alexa for directions to Mordor, J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy middle earth world, but she didn’t have an answer. (Siri does, however.)

Since we published this story, we’ve learned of other Alexa tricks. My son Oscar asked Alexa to make “an elephant sneeze noise.” Alexa made a noise that sounded like an elephant noise. He also asked Alexa to make “a donkey sneeze noise.” (He is 4; we tried lots of animal sneeze noises.)

Alexa can tell jokes, beat box and solve math problems. She will not, however, delve into the birds and the bees.