You’re Never Alone With A _______.

How many of you upon reading the title, filled in the blank with Schizophrenic? And the reason you did was to quote the music album of the same name by Ian Hunter, right? Nicely done music buffs! I would have done the same.

However, that would have been the wrong answer as it pertains to this post. The word(s) I was looking for were something along the lines of “voice digital assistant”. You’re never alone with a voice digital assistant like: Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and Bixby.

Voice digital assistants are available on smartphones, tablets, computers, and on standalone speaker-like devices. Additionally, most major appliance manufacturers will be rolling out voice controlled smart appliances to the U.S. market within the next few months including: washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, coffee makers, and refrigerators.

How do they work? Well, as we go about our daily activities, these voice digital assistants are listening in the background for their wake up phrase (Hey Siri, Ok Google, Alexa are just a few examples). The assistants are able to filter out background noise and upon hearing their wake up phrase and subsequent commands, the devices can send text messages, create calendar entries, dial calls, answer questions, relay weather information, set alarms, adjust thermostats, turn off lights, play music, change television stations, and even operate the above mentioned smart devices within the home. This is by no means an exhaustive list as new functionality is being developed daily.

Technically speaking, once the devices wake up, they begin recording audio clips of your voice. These audio clips are sent over an encrypted connection to a server that processes the audio files and formulate a response. Recordings are saved on the devices and users may access their account to delete them.

As you can imagine, this raises a whole set of privacy concerns. For example, I was showing a luxury home recently, and as I entered the front foyer of the home, there was an Amazon Alexa on a small wooden side table with a printout of possible commands. Why not play along, I thought. “Alexa, Start Tour”. Smooth jazz music began to play throughout the home and the family room eyeball lights dimmed. Based on the printout I asked Alexa to lower the inside temperature. Recording audio is illegal in North Carolina without the permission of a party to the conversation. Did I just inadvertently give the seller permission to record my dialog?

What if voice digital assistants were able to identify a dangerous pattern of words or had the abililty to recognize potential illegal activities that were about to occur? Should the assistants report these incidents to the authorities?

Technology has come a long way from when I was growing up. I can honestly remember not having a microwave as they weren’t available. As my children were growing up, I also remember explaining the rotary dial telephone and how we had to place the tip of a finger in a small round hole corresponding to each of the 10 numbers we wished to dial and with our finger turn the dial clockwise until it stopped.

Imagine a day when children won’t be able to fathom a time when people couldn’t verbally communicate with every device in the home. “Mom! The refrigerator is not listening to me!”.

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