RSS

Tag Archives: Alexa

Eavesdropping is a nice way of saying ‘spying’.

It comes as no surprise that the Amazon Echo speaker is listening more closely than people think. Let’s be clear: It’s not listening in, it’s eavesdropping. The word has been around for more than 300 years! It describes the act of someone secretly “listening under the eaves” to another.

Alexa is supposed to be in ‘listening mode’ only when the speaker is addressed. Last week, however, Amazon confirmed that some of its employees did listen to recorded conversations. Employees! Not Amazon’s software. Are you comfortable with that? Some folks secretly listening in under the Artificial Intelligence eaves? Oh sure, for ‘quality and training purposes’?only. All in the interest of Big Data. The Atlantic reports that millions of people are using a smart speaker, and many have more than one close by. (Read it: Alexa, should we trust you?”)

In May last year, the speaker recorded a conversation of a husband and wife and sent it to a friend. I wrote about a related matter a few weeks back. I’ll never be comfortable with a piece of hardware sitting in a room just there to listen to me. The Bloomberg article reports that some employees at Amazon listen to 1,000 clips of recordings per shift. Like some privatized surveillance company, laughing at all the conversations going on behind closed doors. Beyond eavesdropping, it is audio voyeurism! Aren’t you troubled by that?

We were once alarmed by having too many cameras aimed at us. Now it’s listening devices. Does the convenience factor blunt people to the privacy they give up?

 

Tags: , , , ,

Things I get to hear about Alexa and Google Home!

Sure, you often hear of fancy ‘life hacks’ about people who program their smart speaker to turn on a coffee maker or help with math homework. But the stories I get to hear from young people on the experimental edge of the home-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) phenomenon range from the hilarious to the unsettling.

I’ve been writing about IOT for some time now. What gets me is how quickly people appear to want to hand off simple tasks like opening one’s window blinds, or turning on an appliance

“Alexa, turn on the bedroom fan!”

And then there’s the not-so-funny side to having an app for everything. Just take a look at the recent lawsuits and missteps by tech companies.

The baby monitor story is scary. A mother discovered to her horror that the baby monitor “was slowly panning over across the room to where our bed was and stopped.” That’s just one of the ‘things” we want our smart homes connected to.

How about door locks? You can’t make this stuff up: A man wearing a Batman T-shirt was  locked out of his home in September last year when his Yale lock, combined with his Nest security system thought he was an intruder. The man was in a Batman T-shirt. The ‘smart’ doorbell identified the cartoon character and tried to be too smart for the man’s liking. Sound a lot like the command, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Poor Dave was locked out with, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

A side note on Facebook sneaky habit. As explained at Endgadget, “Privacy International study has determined that ‘at least’ 20 out of 34 popular Android apps are transmitting sensitive information to Facebook without asking permission, including Kayak, MyFitnessPal, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg anymore. Neither his recent statement, nor his other numerous apologies. (Check last year’s apology!)  Which is another reason why I quit FB earlier this month.

 
 

Tags: , , , , ,

Voice assistants I love to unplug, and smart fridges I really don’t need

I’ve had some fun with Alexa. The matter was settled over the Christmas break: We can do without AI in our home.

I had previously written about it here. And featured voice assistants in my last tech column, “I spy with my little AI.” I reference how creepy it could get should an AI enabled device such as Alexa, Google assistant or even Siri eavesdrop on our private conversations. AI devices after all are supposed to do our bidding, not spy on us. But there’s a fine line between passively listening and spying.

So when we discovered that an AirBnB we rented over the break provided an Amazon Echo speaker, it got to the point where (after a few rounds of asking Alexa random questions and finding ‘her’ quite annoying) I unplugged it and put the darn thing away.

It was no surprise then to hear that at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas,  several new breeds of AI devices were unveiled, designed to respond to human inclination to suddenly want to talk to hardware. Such as the smart refrigerator by LG that ‘talks’ to a smart oven etc.

Which makes me wonder: Just at the time when we have plenty of research pointing to the correlation between being too plugged in, and being extremely socially disconnected, we have the tech sector pushing products that seem to exacerbate the issue. I don’t need a smart fridge, thank you very much – I just need a painless way to talk to an LG service rep (25 minutes on hold, seems customary) when my fridge behaves badly.

And speaking of snooping devices, here’s something that is advertised as being able to monitor a home. A clothes hook with a hidden camera. Creepy? Or is it the sign of (the Internet of) things to come?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 17, 2018 in LMD, Technology

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

How indispensable could Alexa be?

I have been curious about Google Home and Amazon’s Echo, purely from a tech perspective. Also it’s interesting to keep an eye on where AI is going. It’s easy to be cynical, because a piece of always-on hardware that ‘listens’ to everything going on in your home all day is well, a bit creepy.

Not that it worries millions of iPhone users who also have an AI agent, Siri, just waiting to be asked something.  But these devices are prone to being hacked, besides invading one’s privacy. (I know of several people who have a sticker over the camera on their laptop lid, for good reason. Hey, Facebook’s Zuckerberg does!)

So a few days ago I tested Alexa in a friend’s home. He’s been using it a lot –he asks Alexa what’s the best route to work, and to play music off his playlist etc. I asked Alexa a simple question, “Alexa, How long will it take to get to the Moon?” Without missing a beat Alexa responded with an answer (3 days) qualifying it with something about development of rocketry. The next few questions a bit predictable, such as asking for the bio of a country singer, and to play some of Keith Urban’s music. When Alexa got stumped, it was probably my accent, or it did not get the context right.

But my friend says he asks Alexa to add items he will need in the store to his shopping cart, and picks up the list on his phone when he is in the store. He recently installed a smart thermostat so it is feasible that one day he could ask Alexa to change the temperature (and his wife could ask Alexa to change it back!) But as we brainstormed how it might change our lives I wondered, once the fascination (of talking to a piece of hardware) wears off, if we might find Artificial Intelligence too useful to ignore.

For instance, I would love to be able to ask Alexa or Google Home to:

  • Forward my article to LMD magazine, but please change the last sentence to (and I could dictate it). It would save me from logging back onto the computer, and opening my email etc.
  • Send a Text alert to my friend in Worcester (whose phone number I have forgotten) about an upcoming event
  • Buy a copy of a (name title of book) from Amazon, use Prime, and pay for it with my gift card, not a credit card.
  • Print a copy of my recent Lesson Plan on a black-and-white printer, double-sided, on Monday morning by the time I get to school

Will that day come soon? Are we there now? Is this too much information to be put out there in the cloud? Will Keith Urban send my daughter an autographed T-shirt? Just kidding!

 
1 Comment

Posted by on October 15, 2017 in Social Media, Technology

 

Tags: , , ,

The Chatbots are coming! The Chatbots are coming!

You are not imagining. Suddenly there is a lot of talk about these things called Chatbots.

And, um, what exactly is a Chatbot? It’s probably not what you might imagine at first. It’s not an App that you use to talk to someone – thought that evolution might just happen. A Chatbot is a virtual information assistant that uses artificial intelligence to provide answers you may ask of it. Yes, like SIRI, but better.

A Chatbot may predict what you are looking for (say weather in Colombo, as opposed to weather in San Francisco), and provide you with some insight it gleans from past interactions with you.

Amazon and Microsoft have been early out of the gate with these AI assistants. Amazon, for instance has Alexa, and is used with the Amazon Echo speaker. It’s basically a piece of hardware you talk to (as opposed to an App like SIRI). And it this networked speaker provides you with things such as sports scores, places you are looking up such as restaurants etc.

What’s the big deal about Chatbots?

Let me answer this from the perspective of my book (conveniently titled) Chat Republic. The big deal is that we humans fully immersed in a Web 2.0 world are moving towards having deeper, richer, and dare-I-say commercially-infused conversations. For whatever reason, we sometimes prefer technology over humans (which is why we are often politely asked to text someone not call!), so the market is giving us what we show preference to.

Artificial Intelligence has developed to the point that it can deliver information that was once curated, created or thought through by humans. Oddly enough, some Chatbots do have humans working behind the scenes! I’m not against Chatbots. They have a role to play, after all.

Side note: Many moons ago, before smart phones (c. 1998), I used a phone-based service to find movie times, demographic information and such. That data was saved on servers we now call the ‘Cloud’, and that database has evolved into AI.

Supreme irony: Chatbots do the work once done by humans. Humans also do the work done by Chatbots.

 

 
 

Tags: , , , , ,