Virtual Assistants: Why You May Need to Pay Attention

A week ago, there was coverage regarding an Amazon Echo calling 911 in the case of domestic abuse. Concerns over privacy have risen, despite Amazon’s clear explanation of how Echo is incapable of calling 911.

The debate over privacy and how our smart devices track us is not a new discussion, despite the new fervor.

Gaming leads the way

In 2006 Nintendo changed the gaming world with the introduction of their Wii system. While nothing special in today’s tech mind, the Wii brought the first motion tracking device into everyday living rooms. Light emissions trigger the sensor, and the technology was an estimation of movement at best. However, the door was opened to interactive technology.

Fast forward 4 years to 2010, and all three major gaming consoles released their own version of motion sensor technology. Microsoft had topped them with its long-heralded Kinect hitting stores late in the year.  The Kinect was capable of sensing motion without a controller and was voice activated.  No one thought twice about bringing tracking sensors into their households.

Until 2013 when Microsoft introduced Xbox One, including the newest and greatest Kinect 2.0.

Not only did the Kinect 2.0 track motion and activate with voice commands, it was capable of monitoring heart rate, emotional data, along with facial recognition. The device is a necessary component for Xbox One to function, so there is no way to disable the tracking component. Plus, the gaming console requires almost constant online engagement with Microsoft. Microsoft now had the capabilities of watching what was occurring in a room with Kinect, regardless of voice activation or game play.

There was concern. As quickly as it rose, it died down. Worries over what Kinect is tracking were sidelined as the benefits of what the Xbox One can bring to its user were experienced.

Introduction to Virtual Assistants

Amazon’s Echo launched in 2014, and virtual assistants moved into households. By 2016 Google had contributed its own model to the marketplace.  Current estimates have over 8 million Echos in American households. Sales that have been unhindered despite the 2015 murder trial of James Bates when Amazon was served a warrant for any audio on their servers.

Alexa’s App for smart phones further linked the connectivity between the home virtual assistant and mobile devices. An Echo owner can call and message their device from their IOS or Android, accessing their home tech hive. HTC is the newest mobile maker to add Alexa, adding capabilities to their HTC U11 phone on top of Google Assistant.

Tech gurus are asking why the devices shouldn’t be capable of further assistance, despite the public questioning their loss of privacy. Let’s take the most recent engagement between the public and Alexa. While some individuals question what Alexa can hear and when, others are wondering why Alexa shouldn’t be able to call in the case of abuse or emergency need.

Future capabilities

The benefit from virtual assistances calling in cases of abuse would be peripheral compared to the potential drawbacks. Virtual assistants are black boxes.  They take in information and respond based on previous recordings. In other words, Alexa does not have intuition.

A lack of intuition means large capacity for misreading situations, tones, and human interactions.

For every Tolga Kurtoglu (Parc CEO) pushing for more interactive AI experiences, there is an equal push for regulation and privacy against AI exposure in our lives. However, we will experience Alexa and virtual assistants taking on more and more functions as the Internet of Things increases. There may be a future of interaction between virtual assistants and emergency personnel for the benefit of household individuals.

Microsoft proved in 2013 humans are more than capable of giving up privacy for functionality. The data sitting on Microsoft and Amazon’s servers at this moment would be astounding to see.

Data you can delete, if so inclined. Just know your experience with Alexa will not be as functional if you take away her learning capabilities.

Join us next week when we dive further into what Alexa is, what her functions can and cannot do, and to what you should pay closer attention.

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