Pay no attention to Alexa, she’s an AI.
There was a flurry of reports from dozens of news sources (including CNN) last week that an Amazon Echo, (Alexa), called the police during a New Mexico incident of domestic violence. The alleged call began a SWAT standoff, and the victim’s boyfriend was eventually arrested. Interesting story, but after a fact-check, that could not be what happened. Several sources including the New York Times and WIRED debunked the story with details on how Alexa calling 911 is technologically impossible, at least for now. And although the Bernalillo, New Mexico County Sheriff’s Department swears to it, according to WIRED,
“Someone called the police that day. It just wasn’t Alexa..”
Even Amazon agrees from a spokesperson email,
“The receiving end would also need to have an Echo device or the Alexa app connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, and they would need to have Alexa calling/messaging set up,”1
So it didn’t happen, but most agree, while it may be technologically impossible today, it probably won’t be for very long. The provocative side of the WIRED article proposed this thought:
“The Bernalillo County incident almost certainly had nothing to do with Alexa. But it presents an opportunity to think about issues and abilities that will become real sooner than you might think.”
On the upside, some see benefits from the ability of Alexa to intervene in a domestic dispute that could turn lethal, but they fear something called “false positives.” Could an off handed comment prompt Alexa to make a call to the police? And if it did would you feel as though Alexa had overstepped her bounds?
Others see the potential in suicide prevention. Alexa could calm you down or make suggestions for ways to move beyond the urge to die.
But as we contemplate opening this door, we need to acknowledge that we’re letting these devices listen to us 24/7 and giving them the permission to make decisions on our behalf whether we want them to or not. The WIRED article also included a comment from Evan Selinger of RIT (whom I’ve quoted before).
“Cyberservants will exhibit mission creep over time. They’ll take on more and more functions. And they’ll habituate us to become increasingly comfortable with always-on environments listening to our intimate spaces.”
These technologies start out as warm and fuzzy (see the video below) but as they become part of our lives, they can change us and not always for the good. This idea is something I contemplated a couple of years ago with my Ubiquitous Surveillance future. In this case, the invasion was not as a listening device but with a camera (already part of Amazon’s Echo Look). You can check that out and do your own provocation by visiting the link.
I’m glad that there are people like Susan Liautaud (who I wrote about last week) and Evan Selinger who are thinking about the effects of technology on society, but I still fear most of us take the stance of Dan Reidenberg, who is also quoted in the WIRED piece.
“‘I don’t think we can avoid this. This is where it is going to go. It is really about us adapting to that,” he says.’”
Nonsense! That’s like getting in the car with a drunk driver and then doing your best to adapt. Nobody is putting a gun to your head to get into the car. There are decisions to be made here, and they don’t have to be made after the technology has created seemingly insurmountable problems or intrusions in our lives. The companies that make them should be having these discussions now, and we should be invited to share our opinions.
What do you think?