Voice assistants like Alexa and Siri don’t know space facts, NASA could fix that

Kyle Wiggers at VentureBeat published a story today examining the questionable quality of Amazon’s Alexa Answers service. The piece highlights several answers to questions that were false or misleading, including this:

The third question — “Who was the first black man on the moon?” — contains a false premise. No African American astronaut has walked on the moon to date, although one user offers “Bernard Anthony Harris Jr.” as a potential answer. This is incorrect — while Harris became the first African American to perform a spacewalk in February 1995, he never stepped foot on the moon. Interestingly, Alexa rarely surfaces this answer when asked the question, but instead erroneously responds with the answer “Neil Armstrong.”

I tried this same question with Siri on my Mac. Siri doesn’t offer a blatantly wrong answer like the Alexa Answers response, but it does punt to a list of web results with a misleading first entry.

The first Wikipedia result Siri surfaces tells you about Bernard Harris, the first African-American to complete a spacewalk, but not Guion Bluford who was the first African-American in space.

A properly configured response would acknowledge that NASA and other space agencies haven’t given black astronauts the opportunity to walk on the Moon yet.

This gave me an idea. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft should partner with NASA to populate as many space questions with factual responses — even when the answer isn’t what we want.

Kids are growing up learning to control computers by voice first, and there’s no reason a voice assistant shouldn’t be a trusted source for answering all the curiosities of the mind.

NASA is a space agency with a wealth of important space knowledge. The outreach effort would be a great STEM project. Tech companies could certainly invest their own time in training their voice assistants to learn important space facts, but NASA is better positioned to know what the top 100 space questions people ask are.

This incident also made me think about NASA’s Artemis program and which astronauts will walk on the moon.

Frankly, I hope NASA’s Artemis III mission to the moon doesn’t include a white man. NASA’s tagline “first woman and next man” certainly doesn’t rule out yet another white male astronaut being selected.

The good news is the 2020 NASA class of astronauts is somewhat diverse, and NASA is also recruiting new astronauts for the first time in four years now through March 31.

I hope technology companies hear the call for a higher standard with diversity and inclusion questions on STEM subjects, and NASA selects a qualified crew that can inspire kids from all backgrounds with the Artemis III mission.

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