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Alexa, Phone Joe May 28, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now, the story of how Amazon Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent the recording off to a colleague is well-known.  Amazon has said that the event was a highly unlikely series of circumstances that will only happen very rarely.  Further, it promised to try to adjust the algorithms so that it didn’t happen again, but no guarantees, of course.

Forgive me if that doesn’t make me feel better.  Now, I’m not blaming Amazon, or Alexa, or the couple involved in the conversation.  What this scenario should be doing is radically readjusting what our expectations of a private conversation are.  About three decades ago, there was a short-lived (I believe) reality TV show called “Children Say the Funniest Things.”  It turned out that most of the funniest things concerned what they repeated from their parents.

Well, it’s not only our children that are in the room.  It’s also Internet-connected “smart” devices that can reliably digitally record our conversations and share them around the world.  Are we surprised?  We shouldn’t be.  Did we really think that putting a device that we could talk to in the room wouldn’t drastically change what privacy meant?

Well, here we are.  Alexa is not only a frictionless method of ordering products.  It is an unimpeachable witness listening to “some” conversations in the room.  Which ones?  Well, that’s not quite clear.  There are keywords, but depending on location, volume, and accent, Alexa may hear keywords where none are intended.

And it will decide who to share those conversations with, perhaps based on pre-programmed keywords.  Or perhaps based on an AI-type natural language interpretation of a statement.  Or, most concerning, based on a hack of the system.

One has to ask if in the very near future Alexa may well be subject to a warrant in a criminal case?  Guess what, it has already happened.  And unintended consequences will continue to occur, and many of those consequences will continue to be more and more public.

We may well accept that tradeoff – more and different unintended consequences in return for greater convenience in ordering things.  I’m aware that Alexa can do more than that, and that its range of capability will only continue to expand.  But so will the range of unintended consequences.

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