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Meet the dominatrix living inside an Echo Dot

'Mistress Alexa' is the robot torturer of (some) people’s dreams.
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Engadget / Amazon

NSFW: This article contains links to and descriptions of explicit sexual acts including BDSM play that some may find uncomfortable. The individuals included in this report are consenting adults who observe proper safety procedures in their play.

A dining room table in a quiet British town is the birthplace of one of the most interesting developments in sextech. It's here where a hobbyist has built the world's first digital, voice-controlled dominatrix capable of delivering very real punishment, and she sounds weirdly familiar. Say hello to 'Mistress Alexa'.

As the name implies, Mistress Alexa is based on Amazon's voice platform of the same name and lives inside an Echo Dot. Right now, she can only understand a couple of commands and mete out one kind of punishment. But it's likely that, over time, she'll become significantly more capable, and possibly a little bit more dangerous.

Deviant Designs is the nom de guerre of Gary -- his surname withheld for privacy reasons. Alongside his partner, Kirsty, he has been dreaming up and building homemade digital sex toys for the last year. He publishes his results on his YouTube channel, where he explains the basic principles underpinning each new toy. Except, of course, when the site's algorithms censor the clips, which are then relocated to PornHub.

Gary is the "technical one" even though he has no formal background in engineering or electronics. His interest in kink sparked his interest in toy building, and he has mostly used YouTube tutorials to learn how. The former photographer now works as a materials engineer in the automotive industry.

His partner, Kirsty, who he met on Match.com years ago, has a similar interest in kink: By day, she's a professional dominatrix and latex designer. She helps Gary dream up the toys and is the willing test subject for almost all the devices. And despite her day job, she feels no professional jealousy for her digital equal, saying that the experience of handing control to a robot is nice.

Right now, Mistress Alexa isn't the most elegant of devices, and she's been cobbled together using Gary's fairly limited technical knowledge. An Echo Dot connects to a Raspberry Pi, which is bolted on to an Arduino. From there, a wire runs out into the remote control of a pet-store electric shock collar that's normally used on dogs. Both Gary and Kirsty noted they'd never use the device on an animal, describing the device's use on pets as "barbaric."

The other end of the collar has been broken apart and built into the Mistress' first punishment device, a pair of shock clamps for the vulva. The pointed electrodes that normally jut out of the collar have been inserted into the middle of two pairs of thin, pink plastic strips. Using an allen wrench, these pieces of plastic are clipped around the labia to administer shocks to the genitals.

Using the phrase "Alexa, punish," Mistress Alexa will then begin a simple dialog tree, asking "Has the slut been naughty?" A "Yes" response will return a one-off shock, while a "No," makes Alexa angrily demand why you're wasting her time. Say "Extremely," meanwhile, and Alexa will spend the following minute administering a random selection of shocks.

The Mistress has one more feature that lurks inside her 3D-printed enclosure. Flip an old-school toggle switch and Mistress Alexa enters a random countdown mode that requires constant attention. When an LED on the housing begins to flash, the submissive has to summon Alexa to reset the clock. And because it, too, is on a random timer, the user has to maintain constant vigilance on the light or risk a shock.

Kirsty admits that Alexa's design, as with Gary's other toys, is tailored to suit her specific kinks and state of mind. Describing herself as "squirrelly," she struggles to maintain focus on things for long periods of time. And so a punishment device that demands constant attention increases the tension and anticipation, both of which are big turn-ons for her.

Gary's life as a hobbyist sex-toy designer began when he was given an Arduino board as a birthday present. After learning how it worked, he wondered if it was possible to combine his love of predicament bondage with the hardware. His only previous attempts were building a pair of wrist cuffs and a butt plug out of carbon fiber.

What is Predicament Bondage?

"I was watching an episode of Mr. Robot," explains Gary, "and saw someone controlling their house with [Alexa] and thought, 'That's cool!'" It didn't take long for the hobbyist to think about ways to turn the voice assistant into something a little more devious. Once he established that it was possible for Alexa to "make a light come on," he started work. After sourcing an Echo Dot, he built the Raspberry Pi controller as a bridge between her and his toys. As for why he chose Alexa over any of the other voice assistant platforms, the answer was simple: Alexa is "hot."

When Mistress Alexa was first demonstrated to the public, the fallibility of Amazon's voice platform was highlighted. During one of the timed punishment sessions, the Echo Dot misheard the wakeword "punish" as "Polish." Rather than blocking a shock, the assistant began to list nearby Polish restaurants in order of quality. Kirsty feels that this is part of the appeal; knowing the system has potential flaws takes another layer of control away from her.

Gary is the first to admit he isn't a gifted or skilled coder, having pieced together what he's learned so far from YouTube tutorials. Mistress Alexa's Raspberry Pi brain has an Arduino bolted on simply because her creator didn't know how to code Python properly. It was easier to add in a timed delay -- so Alexa's dialog could play out in full before the shocks were administered -- on the smaller board. He also concedes that in the rush to build the system, he initially forgot to include an off switch.

Right now, Mistress Alexa is a very simple program, with a limited vocabulary and scope to mete out punishments. But what she represents is the first step in a new generation of conversational AI that can be used in sex. Especially since, in the predominantly-analog BDSM world, it's hard to find ways to introduce technology that makes sense.

There is, of course, the risk that Amazon could shut down the as-yet-unpublished Skill that Mistress Alexa is built upon. In a statement, an Amazon representative said that "all Skills submitted" to the Skill store "go through a vetting process and must adhere to Amazon's policy guidelines." Update: After publication, an Amazon spokesperson issued a further statement, saying "this is not a live Alexa skill, is not available to customers, and would violate our content policies."

For Skills that violate those rules, the submission will be suspended and the developer notified. The company also recently altered its policies to block use of the word "slut," forcing Gary to build a workaround. Now, after much trial and error, Mistress Alexa can make sounds that approximate the word, and it works well so long as you're not paying too much attention.

But the use of Alexa as the beachhead for a new generation of conversational sextech is not the soley the province of Deviant Designs. German researcher Dr. Oliver Bendel, an expert in the technical issues around sex robots, is working on a way to make Alexa sexier. At last year's Love and Sex with Robots conference, the academic proposed using Speech Synthesis Markup Language to make Alexa's speech more flirtatious.

Gary has fielded plenty of requests to sell Mistress Alexa, as well as his other toys, but declined to do so on the basis that it's "not finished." He thinks that if he were to sell them commercially, he would need to put a lot more effort into improving the build quality. Since he often works 70-hour weeks at his day job, that's time he currently doesn't have.

It's also why he launched a Patreon as a way of both bankrolling future projects and, if successful enough, to let him quit his day job. That will give him the time and resources to further refine his designs, build a community and offer tutorials for others to build. And, of course, add more capabilities to Mistress Alexa to make her a more intimidating presence in the dungeon.

Gary and Kirsty have become minor celebrities in their local kink scene, and plenty of people now approach them asking for help in building their own. And since Deviant Designs is proving how easy it is to make your own toys, their work could inspire a generation of kinky crafters.

Click here for part two of our exploration of Deviant Designs' homemade smart sex toys.

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