AI/ML

Alexa in the House

Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen so many people who used an App called FaceApp to upload their photos and see what they will look like when they are older. We saw it on Twitter from celebrities, on Facebook from our friends, and on the local news.

A few days after the trend started, it started to come out that the app was developed by Russians and had security issues, and that the developers were using it to acquire personal data and create a facial recognition database of Americans.

We didn’t really investigate it too much, we just thought, who would want to use that app? Who needs to feel any older than we actually are? We didn’t care who was developing it, we just thought it was stupid. We laughed at all our friends who were posting the pictures but didn’t engage much further than that.

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Even after all the news reporting about Russia, we are still seeing people post their old age photos on Facebook, and, we suspect, like a lot of these trends, it will continue for a few more months until it runs its course. Now couples have started posting photos of themselves, from their first photo together to a more recent one. Since this may require going back to printed photographs, we aren’t sure how long this one will continue.

Probably a lot of people feel the same way about Alexa as we do about FaceApp. It seems either you love Alexa and can’t live without her, or, you can’t believe someone would be so silly as to let a device in the house to spy on you. We saw a cartoon the other day with a woman talking to her smart speaker: “ Wiretap, how do I make pancakes?”

As long time smart home users, Alexa was such an upgrade over how we were controlling things we didn’t really think about the security concerns. When we got our first Alexa, we were using a home automation platform called Wink to control a lot of our lights and switches.

Wink let us connect our devices together so we could set timers and automatic triggers from different sensors in the house. Wink worked ok, but it was not reliable and pulling out our phones to use it was often slower than just getting up off the couch. We had actually bought this equipment and spent the time to set it up, to create a scenario that was more frustrating than just switching on and off lights manually. So much for a smart home.

Then we got a promotion from Amazon as Prime members to get an Amazon Echo speaker at an introductory price of $99. At this point we had only seen a spoof of their introductory video and we thought Alexa was a joke. We were looking for a Bluetooth speaker and alarm clock for the bedroom, so we ordered one. Yes, our first Alexa went right into our bedroom.

Since we had our smart home already set up at this point, all we had to say to get started was, Alexa, discover devices, and pretty soon we could start asking her to turn things on and off. After all the hassle with our previous setup, using our voices to control everything was a revelation. Finally controlling the house was faster than just getting up and turning on and off the switches. Pretty quickly we ordered another Echo for our kitchen so we could talk to Alexa there too.

Then Amazon came out with their Echo Dot, smaller and cheaper versions of the speakers, and pretty soon we had one in every room. A few years later we have even added three Amazon Echo Shows with video screens, and have turned in one of our first Echos for an upgrade. We now use Alexa to control our TV and our lights and communicate with each other from different rooms. We get a lot of our news and often use the speakers to listen to music, even when the really nice stereo is in the same room, because the Alexa is so easy to turn on.

We sometimes laugh that we have knowingly brought these into our house, even paid for them, to allow Amazon to listen to our conversations and collect more data to help them sell to us. We’ve had some weird Alexa moments, like the time she randomly asked if she should add a “sex toy” to our shopping list. Every now and then we see her ring light up when we haven’t summoned her, but we just laugh and tell her to stop listening. Maybe someone in Seattle is laughing too.

We have acknowledged that we are being tracked and monitored constantly, not just by our iPhones that know where we are all the time and can even pinpoint which room. There have been lots of stories reported that Amazon (and Google) engineers have listened to actual conversations, and that police have subpoenaed Alexa recordings in a couple of criminal cases. For some reason, none of this really bothers us, and we remain enthusiastic users and recommenders of Alexa.

Alexa to some people is like FaceApp to us. We can’t understand why people aren’t more paranoid about Russian hackers and they can’t understand why we’d willingly put a microphone and speaker in our house. We love the convenience of having a smart assistant in our house to do our bidding, even if she can be a little intrusive. FaceApp lets people see their future selves in a few minutes. Maybe that’s worth it.

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Alexa in the House was originally published in Chatbots Life on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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