Alexa, Chief Procurement Officer

Robert Wilson

I caught a brief article this morning telling us that Amazon, the behemoth online retailer, has plans to get their voice activated personal assistant, Alexa, into the corporate offices of America. According to the piece, “Amazon is going to launch Alexa for Business to give enterprise software a way to use voice controls.” I did not realize just how far ahead my office was regarding this technology curve. You see, Alexa is already in my office. In fact, she is our Chief of Procurement.

Granted, her duties are somewhat mundane. She orders workaday items like coffee, paper towels and toilet paper. She also gets to connect to my phone and stream my preferred talk radio personalities. Still, I sense that her capabilities are not being fully utilized in this manner. In my home, her duties are a bit more significant. She plays music, controls many of our lights and tells me what weather to expect, both at home and for upcoming trips around the country.

And she can handle the occasional obscure request, like recently telling us what actress played Arthur Fonzarelli’s cousin “Pinky” Tuscadero on the 1970’s sitcom Happy Days (don’t ask).

Still, in the workplace she represents both risks and rewards. While the device could make interaction with enterprise software much more efficient, I am not sure that corporate America will be quite so willing to let “anytime listening devices” into the inner sanctums where their deepest secrets are discussed. There have already been stories about hacking vulnerabilities of earlier Amazon Echo devices. While those susceptibilities required physical access to the device to exploit, it should still serve as a reminder that no device is completely foolproof.

Of course, with the ubiquitous nature of webcams and built in microphones in today’s computer equipment, corporate America probably already has ample exposure in that area. What’s one more simple little device?

I do have one employee, a developer, who has unplugged the Echo devices in his home. It seems that he had too many odd coincidences where he discussed a particular product or item with his wife, only to have it start being continually featured in ads wherever he went online. Maybe he is being oversensitive. Or maybe he isn’t. Only Jeff Bezos knows for sure.

Personally, we don’t discuss anything so secretive or profound in our offices that would make me terribly concerned about the risk of eavesdropping. If someone wants to hack into our network to listen to me clear my throat and blow my nose, so be it. They may also get to hear me when a printer malfunctions or my web browser locks up. I hope they aren’t easily offended by colorful language. I’m a real Type A personality when technology goes awry.

If Amazon really wants Alexa to be successful in the business world, they will give her skills in the area of Human Resources. She could do those things that no sane person truly enjoys; initial interviews, hiring paperwork, benefits administration, and, of course, the post-termination exit interview. Until that time, however, I suppose she will just have to be satisfied with making sure our toilet paper shows up on time. When you really think about it, that task alone makes her one of the most indispensable people in the office.