News came recently that Amazon’s Echo managed to break up a violent domestic dispute after hearing the assailant asking the victim if she called the sheriffs. The device apparently believed the voices were telling it to call the cops, so it did, allowing the 911 operator to overhear the commotion and send in the troops. The situation was eventually resolved after lengthy negotiations between the police and the assailant, but, the main idea is that the victim was safe.
Now, that sounds lovely, doesn’t it? With one big problem: Amazon Echo is not supposed to follow any commands if you don’t say “Alexa” first, which is the name of Amazon’s personal assistant. What does that mean? Well, it means that the device was listening in, picked up a phrase and went with it without being told specifically to do so.
Realistically speaking, in order for Echo, or any other similar device, in fact, to pick up the catch-phrase, they need to be listening in and be prepared to act at any time. So yes, the device will listen in, even if it will not, officially at least, record any of your conversations. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to act whenever you feel like prompting it to order you a pizza.
Similar situations have happened with Amazon’s Echo devices where Alexa kept waking up due to someone on TV being named Alexandra and would try to respond every time they heard the name. At the very least, in those situations it was because of a similarity in name.
Echo’s mysterious reaction
But how did the Echo know to call the cops without the catch-phrase? Well, there are basically two options here. First is that the software misfired at the best time possible for the victim. Second is that there are actual keywords the device listens for so it can work in dire situations such as this one – “call the sheriffs,” “call the cops,” “call an ambulance” and so on.
The second situation seems a lot more likely, but it brings up another problem – what if the phrase is said in jest? What if someone is simply telling a story about someone they know calling the sheriffs? What if you’re watching a movie and the device will misinterpret what it is hearing?
What if Amazon, Google, and other companies with personal assistants, actually have a big cyber secret and their AIs can tell the difference between a regular conversational tone and an angry one? The technology is already out there. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed wearable tech that carries an AI to detect the tone of the conversation. It uses speech patterns to make sense of what it is hearing in order to best convey the meaning of it all.
It’s not exactly a far-fetched idea that Amazon might also be in possession of a similar technology and might have deployed it on its personal assistant specifically for emergency situations.
Why would they keep it a secret? Well, that’s not exactly hard to figure out. Amazon, as well as operators of other personal assistants, like Google, Siri or Cortana, face a rather ruptured reality. On one hand, there are plenty of individuals out there embracing the technology and all that it has to offer, even if that means these companies may be listening in on their conversations so they can intervene when needed. On the other hand, there are the large masses of users that are already doubting themselves over getting an Echo, or a Google Home, specifically due to this “always on” feature.
Because of the reactions, the second group might have, Amazon would keep such a feature under wraps for as long as possible. Alienating the better portion of its customer pool might not be in their best interest, after all.
“We need to get prepared for a world with almost no privacy (as we know it). A ‘real’ private conversation in the kitchen, with ‘no machines’ present at all, will be a rare treasure. The only time to share the left of our ‘secrets’ that we’re still trying to keep,” said Arthur Keleti, cyber-secret futurist, who has voiced his vision on the future of privacy and secrets in his recently-published book at Amazon.
Truth of the matter is that this is our future – surrounding ourselves with smart devices that know how to make your life easier, from playing your favorite music, telling you how the weather is like, informing you about upcoming meetings, waking you up at the necessary time, and, yes, even calling the cops for you in times of stress when your phone may be too far away or your hands too jittery to control the device.
Or, perhaps, it was just a convenient glitch in the system that had Echo calling the cops at the best time possible for the victim.