Sit up and take notice because the privacy we computer users (in whatever form; desktop, notebook, cloud, smartphone, tablet or watch) have, could become an endangered species. Indeed, it might already be too late to stop the coming data capture apocalypse.
Last week I read an interesting missive from Ron McElfresh entitled ‘Welcome To The Age Of The Bimbo Bots‘ which equated Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google’s-whatever-it-is to not very smart bots. I couldn’t agree more, except a one-two punch was overlooked.
The Spy Who Heard Me
With apologies to the James Bond franchise, two items in the Bimbo Bot article caught my eye. The first was Amazon’s supposedly popular Echo devices which feature an always on microphone, always ready to hear and act on your verbal command. That means Echo (or, as Amazon has named the voice response system, Alexa) is always listening.
The second was Microsoft’s Cortana which works much like Siri; an interesting but not overly useful piece of technology that can demonstrate well but doesn’t seem like what we would consider advanced artificial intelligence. Microsoft has developed a new way to put some effective brains into Cortana and turn the technology into the ultimate spy device.
Researchers and engineers from Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research group have set a new record in speech recognition, achieving a word error rate of 5.9 percent, down from the 6.3 percent reported only a month ago.
In other words, this AI is learning; getting better at listening to what we say and transcribing it as well as a human.
The word error rate is the percentage of times in a conversation that a system, in this case a combination of neural networks, mishears different words. Microsoft’s system performed as well as humans who were asked to listen to the same conversations.
Let me go over that again. Microsoft’s whatever-name-it-is technology can listen to humans and transcribe what is said as well as a human transcriptionist (someone trained in the art of transcription).
Without question, Amazon is working on exactly the same kind of voice recognition and transcribing objectives for Alexa; just as Apple works to improve Siri’s capabilities, and Google works on whatever-it’s-name-is.
That means our smartphones, tablets, and even desktop or notebook computers can listen to us, transcribe what they hear, and if so inclined, ship the notes off to whomever wherever. Hackers, government spooks, and foreign entities already are capable of viewing us through our smartphone cameras, listening to our conversations, and rummaging through our files and documents, so what is to prevent this new layer of snooping technology from yet another invasion upon our privacy?
There are some technical issues to overcome, and that has become apparent with Alexa which does not respond well to queries in a room where many people are speaking (Siri has a similar problem with background noise), but you can see where this is going, right? In a relative short period of time Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google’s-whatever can traverse the distance between bimbo bot and spy.
I hope I’m not the only one bothered by such demonstrations of modern technology in the artificial intelligence realm.