According to a report by Juniper Research, by 2022 fifty-five percent of American homes will have a smart speaker device like Amazon’s Echo that might pose a threat to the household. Currently, some 16 percent of homes have one or more of the speakers. The artificial intelligence behind the invention is amazing, but it is so new that some of its capabilities and “skills” are still being developed. That means no one really has a grasp on the potentially dark side of the technology.
How They Work
The website 20Q offers a 20-questions game that is astounding. Players of 20Q choose a word and then answer a series of questions asked by a computer. From the answers, the computer determines what the word is, and it is usually right. If it isn’t right, however, it still learns from the encounter. The more people play, the more the artificial intelligence learns. The game does not use voice synthesis. That is a new wrinkle introduced in Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices.
The new AI machines listen for pre-determined “wake-up” commands and then respond to the user directives. They do this by recording the voices, sending them to the cloud for interpretation, and then receiving them back for implementation. They are fun to use since owners can play games against them, ask them to play specific music and get them to respond to a silly request like “tell me a joke.” They can also be connected to other accounts, making it possible to use the devices to order merchandise from Amazon and other companies.
Alexa’s Dark Side
According to an article in Forbes Magazine, the voice synthesis capability is the device’s Achille’s Heel. The always-listening device may interpret random sounds as wake-up commands and may be subject to hacking. A short-lived Burger King commercial embedded an Alexa command in a commercial. The command asked the device to describe a “Whopper,” which it did by accessing Wikipedia and then relaying the information to unsuspecting TV viewers. The AI devices also record and store user input.
They can be and have been, hacked. Data from one source says that the Echo has already been turned into a wiretap by a savvy tech. What would happen if outside users gained control of a home security system through the speaker?
One writer notes that Americans are willing to give up a certain amount of privacy for entertainment or convenience. This comes in the form of stored purchase history, location, viewing and search history and other data. With the new AI devices, users have gone a step further and have given up some agency. That is, they are allowing parts of conversations and mumbled words to be recorded. That sounds really sinister, but recording does not mean transmitting the data. Amazon says that voice recordings not immediately related to Alexa requests are deleted within 60 seconds.
There is a potential for abuse in the Amazon, Google, and other smart speakers. That said, there are ways to safeguard much of their abilities by disabling some of their functions and employing a mute button. The technology is a Pandora’s Box, however, and there is no going back. Artificial intelligence is used in so many ways besides smart speakers today. Machine voices emanate from soft-drink dispensers and GPS systems. They warn us to put on our seatbelts and remind us about the windchill factor outside our front doors. There may or may not be an evil genie in the technology behind Alexa and her sisters, but it is just too early to know how much risk there is in having an Amazon or Google AI living in our homes.