The press has been reporting stories of how Amazon’s voice controlled assistant, Alexa, may be ordering Christmas presents automatically for unwitting owners. Apparently, if someone says “You know, we could ask Alexa to order a train set for little Timmy”, in the same room as an Amazon Echo it is possible that the device may interpret this as “Alexa, order a train set”. It might even put “For Little Timmy” on the label.
Who’d have thought?
I was reviewing the papers for James Piekos at Radio Humberside today and we were talking about this. We even did some “remote control” of Amazon Echo systems, trying to get them to tell jokes, which was fun, but the subject does merit serious consideration.
I think that Amazon are being a bit naughty here, in that the Amazon Echo is set to order things using voice commands when you first get it. If you want to stop this behaviour, you have to go into the options and turn it off. I think it would be preferable for this setting to be initially off, but Amazon are in business to sell you things (something worth remembering here) and the Amazon Echo is just another device that they are going to use to do this.
I’ve come across quite a few stories about voice controlled devices and how they record everything you say. I’m pretty sure that they don’t; the amount of storage required to do this would be huge, beyond even the capacity of Amazon’s servers. However, they will record the sounds around the “Alexa” command when it is recognised, if only so that when you claim that you didn’t order that “Made in Chelsea” box set they can play back the awful proof.
These recordings might be of interest to all kinds of people and they do raise questions of privacy. But I see this as just another trade we are making between privacy and convenience. If we want the convenience of being able to order box sets we have to live with the possibility that the machine might also record the music we are listening to when we place the order.
I’m actually OK with companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft doing this kind of thing. I know that their relationship with me exists so that they can sell me stuff. I’m much more nervous about companies such as Facebook and Google,who have a business based on selling bits of me to other people so that their customers can influence me in ways that might go well beyond getting me to buy TV show box sets.
I think that, as with most things, this is really a education issue. People need to know the way these things work and, most importantly, how you can set limits on their behaviour. I’ve turned off voice purchasing on my Alexa devices, if only to stop a megaphone owning chum with a liking for practical jokes buying me stuff from outside my kitchen window……