Alexa, Should I be Worried about You?

The following was published in today’s Foster’s and Seacoast Online.


Artificial Intelligence (AI) has hit the mainstream.  Apple started the

Google Home

What all these systems have in common, is that these are primarily consumer focused AI technologies that allow you to interact with your device using your voice.  What is unique with Amazon and Google’s systems is that they are entirely voice driven.  Amazon is leading the pack with Alexa, which is also available on other Amazon aware devices like their Fire TV Stick remotes.  They also have the larger family of Alexa enabled devices.

Many homes now have one of more of these devices installed.  Focusing primarily on Amazon and Google, the idea is to have these intelligent voice assistants throughout your home and interconnected with any smart home devices that may be installed in the home.  In addition to asking these devices for todays weather, the latest news, to play your favorite music or to retrieve and inform you about a host of other information, they are also able to control lights, temperature, drapes, locks and more.  New connected technologies are coming to market every day.

This type of AI relies heavily on massive data stores from the Internet to quickly search and present the information that you have asked for.  In my own home, we’ve had a bit of an issue over Alexa’s presence, which is something you may want to consider.

The way these devices work is that their microphones are in a constant passive mode of listening for their “wake” word.  You can customize these words to a certain extent, but for the purpose of example, the devices only actively listen when you say the “wake” word.  For Amazon, the default is to say “Alexa.”  For Google Home, the default is to say “OK Google” or “Hey Google.”  I recently had two instances where my wife was talking on the phone and the Amazon Echo we have, inaccurately heard the wake word “Alexa” when in one case, what was actually said was “forgetting to feed the dogs” and the Echo heard “Alexa forgetting to feed the dogs” so Alexa responded trying to determine what was said.  This raised a valid concern about devices like this listening and saving information that is not intended.

Privacy advocates have raised concerns about these devices, but so far, companies like Amazon and Google, as well as Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, have all stated that they will never use any gathered information for any other purpose than what the user intended.  They have also, so far, successfully pushed back against law enforcement requests for anything a device may have recorded.  As these concerns come to light, you can expect the manufacturers to improve control over what the devices hear and store.

Like all technology, with every new advance also come privacy and other concerns that may not have been fully considered during development and initial release.

While voice activated AI like the ones I have mentioned have been focused on the consumer applications so far, the business applications are there and growing.  Amazon’s Echo lets you place Amazon orders by just telling Alexa what you want to order, in some cases.  Because this carries the obvious risk of someone in your home ordering a few dozen of something you really don’t want, Amazon has built in appropriate controls to prevent unauthorized ordering or to simply disable the ordering function.  This is a smart application of appropriate controls.

Technologies like Siri, Cortana and Bixby, which presently exist primarily on mobile devices, are making inroads to business applications.  Hotels chains are evaluating these technologies as a way to improve the guest experience, allowing you to request more pillows or check out, just by speaking in your hotel room.  Cortana, which is heavily integrated into Microsoft’s Bing search technology, is building out what Microsoft is calling the Cortana Intelligence Suite, as a way to mine the ever growing amount of data that a business collects on its operations to make the nosiness more efficient and competitive.

Voice technology has primarily been limited to dictation solutions in the commercial markets of healthcare and legal.  All of these new technologies promise advances that may one day make us feel like we are on the Starship Enterprise, talking to our homes and workplaces and getting things accomplished with the power of our voice.  This is just another technological evolution that will be interesting to watch and hold a lot of promise to improve our lives and our world.

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