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?

 

What the HAL?


I love the way Japan and Korea are developing robotics. I used to say that the Japanese were great engineers but not that great at innovating, I think that perhaps those thoughts should be banished to the dim past.

I’ve written a few blogs on robotics, such as about the plans in Korea to have a domestic robot in every household between 2015 and 2020, ironically I mentioned HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Oddysey in that blog.

The latest innovation greeting the media this week has been the new Japanese Robot suit from Cyberdine, also called HAL, but this one is a robotic prosthesis. HAL stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb and uses the faint nerve impulses when your brain tries to control weak or damaged limbs.

This technology has been under development for several years, but it looks like it is ready or the market, as demonstrated in this video taken recently in a Japanese hospital.

What seems remarkable to me is that this robot will soon be available for purchase in Japan for a little over US$4,000! This means that these devices will be accessible for less than the cost of an average surgery and could perhaps be of major assistance to people on waiting lists for hip replacement or other limb operations.

One of the great features is that the exosceleton, if I can call it that, supports its own weight, so isn’t an extra burden on the person wearing it. This offers people with disabilities an amazing opportunty to live and do ordinary, but also extraodinary things. For example during testing 2 years ago, Seiji Uchida, a quadraplegic was able was able to climb a mountain on the back of a climber using a HAL suit.

Of course this brings in the Six Million Dollar Man question. If this is what disabled people can do, what could able bodied people achieve with one of these?

Of course the military have been working on projects like these for a long time. DARPA have for several years been working on exoskeletons that can help people carry more weight, run faster and of course have much more strength when needed.

Other scenarios where these could be used would be in civil emergencies such as earthquake rescue, where immediate strength could speed the release of people trapped under rubble.

The immediate opportunity is to alleviate suffering of people with injuries or issues such as arthritis, but there are likely to be lots of people queuing up for the opportunity to become super people, or perhaps super heroes, or of course super criminals, but I don’t want to go there.

Day to day operations of emergency services could also benefit from this technology. In the hands of fire services, police, paramedics and others, this technology could be brilliant.

I want a domestic Robot


I’m not into singularity, I reckon if we built a robot that has the ability to think in similar ways to humans, they will see us as illogical and like HAL 9000, will consider that it knows better than us what is good for us. But the idea of robots that can take away some of the drudgery of domestic chores, makes a lot of sense. 

In previous blogs I’ve written about the stories we were told in Tomorrow’s Schools when I was a junior futurist, where technology would do all the work and leave us to worry about what to do with our leisure time. This of course didn’t happen, so now I find myself working no less than 50 hours a week and begruding having to spend a lot of my weekends doing chores around the house. 

So the concept of having a robot that vaccuums my house, mows the lawn, washes windows and genrally keeps my home looking spotless, makes a lot of sense. New Zealand isn’t one of those countries where professionals employ housekeepers, most of us have to fend for ourselves. I have many interests including walking, skiing, writing songs, going to concerts, playing poker etc. In my ideal world, there would be no house work, unless it was because it is what I really want to do, although I can’t imagine why, unless it was a green moment in my rock garden.

Korea has been looking at the area of robotics and particularly for domestic use, although defense and medicine are other major opportunities for them and I guess military and surgical robots combined with nanotechnology do offer hugely attractive revenue potential. Korea has been very innovative and when it comes to high tech electronics is right up there with the leaders.

A few years ago the Korean Government made a commitment to have a domestic robot in every home between 2015 and 2020. 

Domestic robots have now come under the term of Personal Robots. Personal robots have been conceived to do everything from bring you a beer, to teaching children to learn languages and help with their homework. There is even an Institute for Personal Robots in Education! 

MIT has a Personal Robots Group, which is exploring many aspects of technology and also human – robot interaction. As well as exploring the many technologies that are involved in developing this technology, they are focussing on what sort of things people would want them to be able to do and ensuring that they can adapt to new tasks, not considered in the initial design.

If you think that buying a domestic robot is over the top and frivolous, maybe security is a good opportunity for you. Imagine your robot, with wireless communications and the ability to transmit  what is going on anywhere in your home, controlled via your mobile. You could see if you left the stove on, whether Johnny is doing his homework, or check the house if the alarm goes off. If it went off because you left your cat inside, it could herd it towards the cat door. It wouldn’t get frustrated and impatient.

While this may all seem very futuristic, as I said at the beginning of this blog, Korea is planning for a domestic robot in every home within the next 9 years, Honda, who gave us Asimo (named after Isaac Asimov who invented the 3 Laws of Robotics) have now come up with a new version, which can be successfully controlled by human thought!  

 

The new Asimo from Honda

The new Asimo from Honda

Given that one of the biggest spends for robots is for military use, which I will explore in a future blog, and an expectation that singularity will happen in the next 20 years, I’ll leave the last word to Hal 9000:

While this blog is starting to get a good following, I would love to get more readers and encouraging me to keep writing. If you feel that my blog is interesting I would be very grateful if you would vote for me in the category of best blog at the NetGuide Web Awards. Note that the form starts each site with www whereas my blog doesn’t and is of course https://luigicappel.wordpress.com.

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