I SPY WITH MY LITTLE AI
BY Angelo Fernando
Ever talk with Siri? Apparently, it’s the thing now – a way to have a conversation with an AI app on a phone.
Or how about the time you asked Google a question by clicking the tiny microphone icon?
For those of you who haven’t spoken to a machine, let’s just say the hardware is ready – powered by artificial intelligence. And the results are both jaw-dropping and alarming.
You could even ask embarrassing questions – the kind one would only ask a trusted friend. Except that friends don’t seem to have the time to chat like they used to. You need to begin your query with the words ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Siri,’ followed by something like: ‘How long will it take to get to the moon?’
The hardware comes in the form of voice activated ‘speakers’ that can sit on a desk or kitchen counter. No wires attached and there’s nothing to download. The one from Google is called ‘Home’ while Amazon’s speaker is ‘Echo’ (whose interface Alexa is grabbing all the attention).
And the AI that powers these things talks back to you as if it’s your personal assistant. You could command Siri with: ‘Siri, open the pod bay door!’ And it would respond: ‘I’m sorry (insert your name here), I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
This is the response of Siri’s great, great, great grandfather – a big data supercomputer called HAL 9000, which controlled the spaceship in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The pod bay door is a reference to a key piece of dialogue in the movie.
I tested the same question on Alexa and her response was no different – albeit with the addition: “We’re not in space and I’m not HAL.”
In fact, it’s also pretty clever because both AI engines understand the reference to the movie without you mentioning its title. And they provide a response in the proper English phrasing ‘I’m afraid…’ instead of a more brusque ‘go to hell!’ Alas, in the movie, the human on board is killed because he cannot thwart the computer… but let’s not let the dystopia ruin your mood.
Should you ask Siri to ‘open the single car garage door,’ its AI engine would recognise this as a legit request, perhaps figuring out through cell tower triangulation that you were down the street close to home. Siri would learn from such requests and store that information (this is one lazy dude!) to help it process similar requests.
Not to be outdone, Alexa and Google can switch on a coffee maker, dim the lights and read the news to you – for example: ‘Hey Alexa, I’ll have a double shot espresso and while I wait, what’s the latest on the Catalan crisis?”
As you can imagine, having an ‘always listening’ device in your home can be a little creepy. What if Alexa, or Siri or Google eavesdrop on your private conversations? True story: one chap’s AI speaker actually turned rogue.
Writer Artem Russakovskii says he talks to his Google Home Mini speaker that sits on a shelf in his bathroom (and yes, I know that sounds weird). One day, he noticed the lights on the speaker turning on and off many times. On checking, Russakovskii found that it had been recording sounds in his house. Worse still, it managed to take over his Spotify stream playing in the office and switched it to the bathroom.
So much for intelligence!
AI devices are supposed to do our bidding, not spy on us. But there’s a fine line between passively listening and spying. Or is it just semantics?
To make matters worse, Google saved the guy’s surreptitious bathroom recording on the Cloud. Think about it: if your Cloud is compromised, all those audio files on your activity portal are there for the taking. Ask Jennifer Lawrence – her iCloud was hacked and photos leaked.
But let’s not allow a story of celebrity cyber insecurity interfere with our paranoia about AI, shall we?
Testing the Echo speaker at my friend’s house was fun. I kept forgetting to use the ‘hotword’ Alexa to preface my command and the speaker would sit sullenly. I could sense Alexa was getting a little confused by my accent but she did tell me it would take three days to get to the moon. When requested, she also played a Keith Urban song within three seconds.
I still don’t know of anyone who talks to his toaster or text-chats with his Fitbit when he is bored. But when that day arrives, I bet we’ll roll our eyes. One family I know has become so comfortable with Alexa that their child declared: “Alexa is my friend.”
With friends like these, who needs spies? Now Alexa, if you’re listening to an LMD podcast of this column, could you please play me ‘Hello’ by Adele? It’s me, on the other side!