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Look who’s talking – and controlling your home speech-enabled technology

“Alexa! Unlock the front door!” No, that won’t work, even if you have an intelligent lock designed to work with the Amazon Echo. That’s because Amazon is smart enough to know that someone could shout those five words into an open window, and gain entry to your house.

Presumably Amazon doesn’t allow voice control of “Alexa! Turn off the security system!” but that’s purely conjecture. It’s not something I’ve tried. And certainly it’s possible go use programming or clever work-around to enable voice-activated door unlocking or force-field deactivation. That’s why while our home contains a fair amount of cutting-edge AI-based automation, perimeter security is not hooked up to any of it. We’ll rely upon old-fashioned locks and keys and alarm keypads, thank you very much.

And sorry, no voice-enabled safes for me either. It didn’t work so well to protect the CIA against Jason Bourne, did it?

Unlike the fictional CIA safe and the equally fictional computer on the Starship Enterprise, Echo, Google Home, Siri, Android, and their friends can’t identify specific voices with any degree of accuracy. In most cases, they can’t do so at all. So, don’t look to be able to train Alexa to set up access control lists (ACLs) based on voiceprints. That’ll have to wait for the 23rd century, or at least for another couple of years.

The inability of today’s AI-based assistants to discriminate allows for some foolishness – and some shenanigans. We have an Echo in our family room, and every so often, while watching a movie, Alexa will suddenly proclaim, “Sorry, I didn’t understand that command,” or some such. What set the system off? No idea. But it’s amusing.

Less amusing was Burger King’s advertising prank which intentionally tried to get Google Home to help sell more hamburgers. As Fast Company explains:

A new Whopper ad from Burger King turns Google’s voice-activated speaker into an unwitting shill. In the 15-second spot, a store employee utters the words “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?” This should wake up any Google Home speakers present, and trigger a partial readout of the Whopper’s Wikipedia page. (Android phones also support “OK Google” commands, but use voice training to block out unauthorized speakers.)

Fortunately, Google was as annoyed as everyone else, and took swift action, said the story:

Update: Google has stopped the commercial from working – presumably by blacklisting the specific audio clip from the ad – though Google Home users can still inquire about the Whopper in their own words.

Burger King wasn’t the first to try this stunt. Other similar tricks have succeeded against Home and Echo, and sometimes, the devices are activated accidentally by TV shows and news reports. Look forward to more of this.

It reminds me of the very first time I saw a prototype Echo. What did I say? “Alexa, Format See Colon.” Darn. It didn’t erase anything. But at least it’s better than a cat running around on your laptop keyboard, erasing your term paper. Or a TV show unlocking your doors. Right?

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