Alexa in Amazon’s Echo
talking stalking speaker has something in common with Siri on iPhone and iPad. Both are listening all the time. Both are capable of extracting commands or queries from a room of people. Both are capable of acting on some of those requests while we’re not paying attention.
Oh, and both do not record our conversations. At least, not all the time. Amazon’s Alexa comes across as more of a spy, mostly thanks to Amazon’s incessant desire to track customers and their behavior across the interwebs.
Which of the two– Alexa or Siri– is the spy?
The answer might depend upon whom you ask? Amazon was contacted recently by a customer named Danielle. One of her husband’s employees received audio recorders of private conversations that came from their home.
Uh oh. Alexa is a spy, right?
Almost. But not quite.
As it turned out, and assuming that Amazon’s version of events is likely and accurate, Alexa simply did what Alexa thought she was being told to do. Here’s Amazon’s version of the series of events:
Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.
Fair enough, but reason to be aware– and beware– of how modern technology can mimic human behavior. We hear things all the time and make assumptions accordingly– and often what we think we heard or saw turned out to be wrong.
If humans can do it, why not Alexa or Siri?
This kind of event leads me to believe that Apple’s Siri– which has fallen behind both Alexa and Google’s Assistant in capabilities– might be behind for a reason. Apple wants to make sure Siri works the way Siri is intended to work.
After all, there are only a few million Echo devices on the market, while Siri works on a billion devices. What kind of public outcry would there have been had Siri done exactly the same thing as Alexa did in Danielle’s case?
For what it’s worth, Danielle told Amazon to give her a full refund on her Echo devices. Had Siri done exactly the same thing to me I would have asked for a new iMac Pro as compensation.