Why Would You Want an Amazon Echo and Who Else is Listening


Amazon EchoHow do you feel about a device that is listening to everything that is being said in your home or office and is connected to the Internet? Especially in this age of cyber terrorism,  when we know that criminals already use tools like Facebook to target people with easy to steal and easy to sell assets.

How do you feel when Gmail bombards you with advertisements for products you have just bought or vacation location deals when you have just returned home from that place? Besides being a waste of time because you already have those things, it shows how Google (in return for giving you free email software and storage) has access to everything you write using their freeware.

So when Amazon had their massive sale on Prime Day, I thought about the Amazon Echo and wondered what I would do with it if I had one and why.

I very occasionally use Siri to save a reminder, a note, perhaps in the car to reduce the risk of having pen and paper in my hand when the lights change, or illegally using my phone because of the inherent risks, even at a traffic light. No joke, my wife has had 2 cars she was driving totalled, both while she was legally stationary at a red light. I’m not saying she could have avoided them, she couldn’t, but the people who hit our cars were certainly not paying attention.

So when I take Siri, and I have to admit it has improved in it’s ability to understand my Kiwi accent, the number of times I have said one thing and Siri has randomly rung a phone number for someone I had no desire to speak with and the fact that Siri has even randomly responded to a sound it heard, when I hadn’t even touched my phone is interesting.

I would love to have an automated home. When I got home last night from dinner in the freezing cold city it was around 6 degrees inside our house and I said to my wife how nice it would be if I could have turned on the heat pump via my phone. It has a timer, but we didn’t know when we would be home and I’m sure we could get an electrician to wire a remote switch into that circuit without having to buy a new heat pump, but I digress.

When everything I write makes a permanent footprint on the Internet and the supplier of that service has access to it all in order to ‘assist me’, I struggle with why I would want another device listening to everything I say.

Imagine living in a country like North Korea where you can be put in jail or worse for just saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and then having a device that YOU PURCHASED providing access to every word that you said in the ‘privacy of your own home’.

Now I know that Amazon is not a spy agency, they can’t afford for this product to risk your privacy because if it did, they could go broke, but they do want to know what you are interested in and devices like these are supposed to be your personal digital assistant. I used to have an executive assistant in one of my jobs and she knew what I wanted or needed often before I did. It was awesome because I knew and trusted her. this device has to listen, even for the Alexa command to work, so technically it is listening to every word, even if in theory it is identifying most as not relevant.

The biggest issue for me with devices like this, which was also why I digressed a little with the heatpump, is that hacking or cyber crime is easy if you know how,or are prepared to pay someone to do it for you. Whether it is hacking someone’s wireless internal garage door or front door, checking Facebook to see who has a boat in the their back yard AND is on holiday overseas is really simple, because most people don’t know how to or don’t want privacy, because they don’t realise the risk.

I read a CBS story this morning about how some cheap Chinese mobiles are apparently surreptitiously sending information from the mobiles back to China using firmware that was in the phones from the factory.

You could say that Alexa can only be woken by people using the word Alexa, then it starts listening for instructions. So what is the first thing that is going to happen when you buy one of these devices? You’re going to tell your friends about it and show it off, so you are going to be using the word frequently and waking it up frequently and it will start listening.

For now I think I’d at least like to be able to use the fingerprint recognition on my phone and tap a button to turn on an appliance if I can’t be bothered standing up to do something like turn on a light. I am happy that I can have a wireless remote system with security algorithms to do that. I’m not sure I want Amazon or a hacker to be able to listen to everything said in my home and then using data mining tools to look for keywords or information that could be used by criminals, or by advertisers to send me more info I don’t want.

How about you?

 

3,000 Teen Deaths from Texting and Driving


A study done by the Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New York, revealed that drinking and driving resulted in the death’s of 2,700 teens in the US, compared to 3,000 from texting and driving.

How about a quick, honest but anonymous poll:

I was listening to the Peggy Smedley Show this morning while cleaning the bathroom and enjoyed some great interviews in her Distracted Driving Month series. The topics were great, everything from the value of reversing cameras through to why car manufacturers are putting social media technology into their cars.

Anyway, a subject that peaked my interest was comparisons of factors impacting on or causing accidents.Talking or texting on the phone is one that that police and others who examine the results of motor accidents look for by default these days.

Peggy quoted a study (can’t remember which university) where they found that people with a blood alcohol level of .08 performed better behind the wheel than people who were using their mobile phone. If you want more detail, listen to Peggy’s back shows on her website or on iTunes, the latest ones being about Debunking Myths about Cellphones and Driving.

Just putting that into context, most people think that dialing a number (I only dial on my hands-free via voice commands with  Siri, or not at all these days) or sending a txt isn’t a big deal. I see ‘professional drivers’ holding their mobile up to their ear pretty much daily. One would assume they are sober, and mentally alert. I was also going to say relaxed, but if they were relaxed, they probably wouldn’t feel the need to take a personal risk, let alone knowing they are breaking the law; so you could surmise that they are already distracted and their minds are not on the road. Yet the study showed that drivers using their mobile were more distracted and less able to perform than those who were at a blood alcohol level where, according to a Blood Alcohol Chart on Wikipedia, they were at the upper range and would be experiencing:

  • Impaired reasoning
  • Reduced depth perception
  • Reduced peripheral vision
  • Reduced glare recovery; and behaviors including
  • Blunted feelings
  • Dis-inhibition; and
  • Extroversion

SheepI really enjoy listening to music when I drive and I have a full subscription to Spotify. I love it. My iPhone FM Transmitter sends it to my car stereo, while charging my phone. I like that. I have been guilty of occasionally looking down at my iPhone for the name of an artist or to skip a track. Our maximum legal driving speed on motorways and highways in New Zealand is 100kmph. Often that is on highways where kids play or cycle on the side of the road. All it takes is for a ball to bounce onto the road, or wandering stock to change things in an instant.

So I thought I’d have a look at the numbers and went to the Unitarium online speed calculator. I worked out that if my eyes were on my phone for 3 seconds (doesn’t sound like much) whilst driving at a legal 100km per hour, my eyes would have left the road  and I would have been oblivious to what was happening on it for 30 meters!

Have you ever done that?

Your indicator is not an extension of your steering wheel!


I had two near misses on the way home from work last night. The first one was on the freeway. A guy two lanes across from me turned into the lane I was turning into after I started my man-oeuvre  into an empty space. He didn’t indicate until he was halfway into my lane. He jumped back when he saw me coming as did I. The difference was I was well ahead of him and indicated a couple of seconds before I started turning my wheel.

Where You GoDon’t people think about their turns any more, or that there might be other people on the road. Sometimes you might have a car or a motorcycle in your blind spot, but not when they are in front of you.

Or beside you which was the case in the second incident last night. It was a 2 lane 60km per hour road and the car in the lane exactly next to me, not in front or behind, just shifts straight into my lane, indicating as his hand reached the arc that allowed it to connect with the indicator in mid term.

I slammed on the brakes, and fortunately the car directly behind me must have seen it coming because he also managed to avoid crashing into my rear end.

So I got home safe and sound, but continue to wonder at the number of people who either don’t indicate at all, or are half way through their turn or lane change when they finally get around to it. It’s a wonder there aren’t a hell of a lot more accidents.

We focus a lot on learner drivers, but I think we should also retest experienced drivers, perhaps once every 10 years. Would you pass a randomly required driving test tomorrow?

Returning Veterans in noncombat car crashes (Read Time 1:33)


Motor vehicle crashes are part of every day life and I have an interest in what causes them and how to reduce them. I’ve been listening to a podcast by Dave Wallace, the Traffic Safety Guy, called Highway to Safety.

From a Bradley to a Civy Street

From a Bradley to a Civy Street

Something I have heard of previously but isn’t front of mind in New Zealand because we are a small country with a small defense force, is what happens when you take someone who has spent 18 months in a combat zone, where they literally have to make split second decisions, and when they come home they pop into the family car to go out for a drive.

When we learn to drive, we learn to look out for animals, for kids running our from behind a bus or an SUV or for drivers of other vehicles driving their cars in an unusual manner, all of which are common day occurrences.

Now take hardened, combat ready veterans who have seen innocent looking situations turn into death traps, where sub second muscle memory instinctive and instant actions can save lives. That family pet lying on the side of the road at home could be a sleeping pet, but in the combat zone, could be a booby trap.

According to a 2009 Army study, quoted in the podcast, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are 75% more likely to die in car crashes than the general population. In fact from 1999 through 2012, 4,423 active military personnel died in non combative crashes.

I can’t imagine what it must be like re-integrating between or after terms of duty, but it makes total sense that there is a problem and it is being addressed. A Home Safe, Drive Safe campaign is being adopted by the various sectors of defense in training offered to service people when they return home.

As you will hear in the brief PSA video by Nascar driver Richard Petty, more returned veterans die in their first year back home in motor vehicle crashes than for any other reason.

This is something I have never considered. We hear about all sorts of adjustments people have to make, but next time I hear of a returned soldier who has had a serious accident as a consequence of responding to a situation that would for most of us be a non event, I’ll be wondering if the have had that part of the debrief and are conscious that they are not in a war zone.

So from someone who has never been in that situation, but enjoys living in a free democratic country, I say “Thank you for your service, we want you to stay alive, safe and well.

If you have a story about this topic, I would welcome it if you would like to share an experience or comment.

The GPS Made Me Do It!


A driver in Nashville crashed his car on Tuesday, blamed his GPS unit for the crash, claiming that it told him to do a U-Turn, so he did. #TheGPSMadeMeDoIt

I hear stories like this all the time and whilst I know from experience that it i easy to get too relaxed when using car navigation, a quality car navigation application is likely to have an instruction along the lines of “When safe, make a U-Turn. Clearly it was not safe.

GPS Warning

GPS Car Nav Warning Screen

Car navigation devices also typically have a warning, like this one from my car. If you don’t click on OK and accept the warning, it won’t even let you enter the address you want to go to.

As parents often ask their kids, “If someone told you to go jump in the lake, would you do it?” If the answer is yes, it may provide recognition that you are not old enough or mature enough to hold a car license.

When people blame their tools rather than take responsibility for their actions, perhaps it is time to ‘Go directly to jail, do not pass Go and do not collect $200.’

Go to jail

Go Directly to Jail

On Ray Kurzweil and Thinking


I was reading a current article by Ray Kurzweil in this month’s edition of The Futurist and it got me to thinking a little. Here are a few random synapse connections from me.

He talked about how the digital neocortex will be be much faster than my wet-ware and that the roughly 300 million pattern recognisers in our biological neocortex will allow us to think in the cloud, using billions or trillions of pattern recognisers.  The IQ part of my brain thinks this could be amazing, although I would worry about dendrite overload or glutamic acid over stimulation, which is associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It’s one thing to connect my brain or nervous system to additional memory, but to extend the processing in and out, is something that I think may require a lot of very careful study.

Earlier this week I wrote a blog about a potential future condition, Google Glasses Separation Syndrome. I recently introduced my daughter to the brilliant book, Flowers for Algernon which follows a similar thread. What happens when you expand a person’s capability to the point that it changes their existence and then potentially remove it again.

I noted that Ray perhaps doesn’t like driving very much because he talked about self driving cars alleviating the requirement of humans to perform the ‘chore of driving’. Sorry Ray, I love driving and so do a large percentage of the people I know. I appreciate that you now work for Google and they are pioneering driver-less cars, but I don’t want to live in a city where eventually the law requires hat the ‘network’ takes over my car. Yes there are benefits in road safety etc.  but with systems such as Fleet Management, MobilEye, and the incentives of PAYD Insurance the roads will become safer without requiring us to take our hands off the wheel.

So IBM‘s Watson won Jeopardy, cool. It is an amazing AI and I love that it is now being used to look for cure’s for cancer amongst other things. But if you start thinking about Watson, a digital neocortex and singularity, what about EQ? It’s one thing to be able to identify things, to be able to locate information, to be able to combine apparently disparate bits of data, but how about feelings, intuition, id and ego? These are the things that make us human.

I like where this is going, but I also want to keep that which is me. Watson might be able to write a hit song by understanding the formulas and this has been tried before. But the song I wrote about a boy whose father lost his job at the plant and asks Santa to find his dad a job, while his mother sits and cries in the bedroom, or the one I wrote about a guy who returns from a tour of duty in Iraq to find his best friend is now sleeping with his girlfriend, that brought tears to Desert Storm vets isn’t going to come from an AI. An AI may understand the chemical reactions of the brain and intellectually that these experiences can cause people to be sad.

The ultimate AI could use impeccable logic to say that humans are bad for the planet, they are frequently illogical, their emotions cause them to make bad decisions and basically shouldn’t be here. Perhaps when Watson really ‘thinks’ about cancer, it might determine that humans are in factor a cancer on this planet and should be booted down. Then we will be left with the singularity which will contain all information, ask why and then boot itself down because having access to all the information in the world, does not impart any meaning.