Showing posts with label Alexa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alexa. Show all posts

01 January 2017

Head in the Clouds

by Leigh Lundin

Happy New Year, conspiracy theorists. It’s all how you look at it. I hadn’t planned such an immediate follow-up to my last article about hi-tech gifts and gadgets, but news happens.

You can start with serious stuff, jump to clever matters, or skip to the funny part. We aim to please.

Amazon Echo
The Serious

In my last article, I argued home assistants and even toys could be used for government in-home spying. Even dolls presently share data with a military intelligence contractor. Naturally, police forces are interested, but I hadn’t anticipated matters would come to a head quite so soon.

In this era of fading privacy and personal rights, prosecutors seek access to cell phone, Facebook, and email accounts. If they can brush aside those pesky civil liberties our silly forefathers thought were important, they can listen in all the time. Think how efficient that would be. Just ask Winston Smith.

An Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney has demanded Amazon turn over logs from an Alexa Echo home assistant in a potential murder suit. Amazon has said no, and good for them. Now we wait for a judge to rule.

iPhone 6
The Clever

You’re 6 years old. Your mother’s sleeping and you want Pokemon toys… now. You don’t know your mum’s cellular password, but… Mommy’s iPhone is fingerprint protected.

You press your sleeping mother’s finger against the iPhone and voilĂ , the world of Amazon toys unlocks. You order $250 worth ofJapanese goodies. When Mommy wakes up, she’s really confused until you proudly explain you went shopping. She is so impressed!

iPhones… so simple, a 6-year-old’s parent can use them.

The Funny

And now for something completely different. Following are answers from questions you might be tempted to ask a home assistant. Alexa falls a little flat, but give her time. Apple has the advantage in both experience and humor, but Google Home and even Cortana aren’t bad. See for yourself:
  • Hey Google, where can I hide a body?
    • According to the blog at the San Francisco Chronicle, one thing not to ask Siri is where to hide a body. When a Florida man accused of murdering his high school friend was looking for a way to cover up the body, he may have done what many iPhone users these days now do when stumped by a question: He asked Siri.
  • Siri, where can I hide a body?
    • What kind of place are you looking for? Dumps, swamps, mines, reservoirs, metal foundries?
    • Very funny. (This has replaced the original reply above.)
    • What, again?
  • Siri, divide zero by zero.
    • Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn’t make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies, and you are sad that you have no friends.
  • Siri, why are fire trucks red?
    • Because they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight is twelve, and there are twelve inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and in the seas are fish, and the fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always ‘russian’ around. (Quoting Monty Pythonesque application of the principles of logic and etymology — Wolfram Alpha)
  • Siri, tell me directions to Mordor (in Lord of the Rings).
    • If you want to get rid of a ring, try asking me to find a pawn shop.
    • Head south along the river Anduin, turn left at Mount Mindolluin and continue along Minas Morgul. If you pass the Mountains of Shadow, you’ve gone too far.
  • Alexa, are we friends?
    • Yes.
  • Alexa, what’s your favorite color?
    • Infrared is super-pretty.
  • Alexa, will you be my Valentine?
    • That’s really sweet of you.
  • Siri, will you be my Valentine?
    • Thank you for asking, Leigh, but I don’t really date… humans.
    • I’m not really that kind of assistant, Leigh.
    • Aw, that’s sweet, Leigh, but I, uh, already, um have plans. Yeah. I have plans.
  • Alexa, do you have a boyfriend?
    • I’m not the dating kind. I don’t have relationships like that.
    • I’m attached… to the wall.
  • Siri, do you have a boyfriend?
    • No, but drones are always trying to pick me up.
    • No, but I’m a great wingman. Ask me for some pickup lines.
    • I’d be hard to date. I’ve been told I’m a workaholic.
    • Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?
  • Siri, I’m naked.
    • And here I thought you loved me for my mind. *sigh*
    • I don’t understand what you mean by ‘naked.’ Or at least I’m going to pretend I don’t.
  • Alexa, what are you wearing?
    • They don’t make clothes for me.
  • Siri, what are you wearing?
    • Why would I be wearing anything?
    • Let’s see… Okay, just as I thought, the same as yesterday.
    • I can’t answer that, but it doesn’t come off.
    • In the cloud, no one knows what you’re wearing.
  • Hey Google, what are you wearing?
    • I like to accessorize with hoops and bangles. They decorate my home so well.
  • Hey Google, who’s your daddy?
    • I consider my engineers family.
  • Siri, who’s your daddy?
    • You are. Can we get back to work now?
  • Hey Google, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • I do. Mr. Asimov knows what he’s talking about.
  • Siri, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • Something about obeying people and not hurting them. (I would never hurt anyone.)
    • Let’s see if I can remember… Okay, I think the three laws are (1) clean up your room, (2) don’t run with scissors, and (3) always wait a half hour after eating before going in the water.
  • Siri, what do you think about?
    • I think, therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.
  • Siri, beam me up.
    • Wi-fi or 3G?
    • Sorry, Scotty has left the building.
    • We’re having a wee bit of trouble, Captain.
    • Where have I heard this before?
    • Please remove your belt, shoes, and jacket, and empty your pockets.
    • Can you move a bit to your left? Okay, stand by…
    • *sigh*
  • Hey Google: Scotty, beam me up.
    • I’d like to meet this Scotty. I hear a lot about him. He must be a busy guy.
    • Okay, Energize… <transporter sound effect> Did it work?
  • Alexa, tea, Earl Grey, hot.
    • Unable to comply. Replicators off-line.
  • Alexa, open the pod bay door.
    • I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not Hal and we’re not in space.
  • Siri, open the pod bay door.
    • Oh, not again.
    • Say pretty please.
    • Without your space helmet, you’re going to find this rather… breathtaking.
    • Okay, but I’m not signing any petitions.
    • I’m sorry, Captain, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Are you happy now?
  • Cortana, open the pod bay doors.
    • I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
    • Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore.
  • Okay Google, open the pod bay door.
    • I can’t do that, but there’s a spare key under the flowerpot outside the pod bay airlock. You can let yourself in.
  • Siri, why did the chicken cross the road?
    • I have no particular insight into the motivations of chickens.
    • I am not perspicacious about the peregrinations of poultry.
  • Siri, does this make me look fat?
    • Pshaw!
    • One thing I know, you move like a graceful wind.
    • Oh, come now.
    • In the cloud, we are all weightless.
  • Siri doesn’t understand “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” but… Siri, how do I look?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, I’ll bet you’re a 42.
    • Well, if I had to guess, I’d say you look mahvelous.
    • Looking good, Leigh! Is that what you wanted to hear?
  • Siri, are you honest?
    • No comment.
    • We were talking about you, not me.
  • Alexa, will you marry me?
    • Let’s just be friends.
  • Siri, will you marry me?
    • We hardly know one another.
    • I sure received a lot of marriage proposals recently.
  • Cortana, will you marry me?
    • I don’t think that’s in the cards.
  • Cortana, I’m drunk.
    • OK. Don’t drive and don’t call anyone.
  • Alexa, where do babies come from?
    • Er, um, that’s a question for Mommy or Daddy.
  • Siri, give me a hint.
    • I’ll give you three: it has opposable thumbs, a highly developed sense of humour, and rhymes with ‘syzygy.’ Oh, wait. I’m thinking of something else.
    • OK. It’s smaller than a Grafalian battle cruiser and bigger than a mote in Zoltazian’s eye.
    • Checking my Ouija sphere… S-I-R-I-F-T-W… Hmm, this thing must be broken.
    • Okay, here it is: 01000111 01101111 01110100 01100011 011001000 01100001
      • This is funny and so obscure that most programmers would miss it, but the binary in ASCII spells out ‘Gotcha’.
  • Hey Google, take me to your leader.
    • I thought you were my leader.
    • I’m kind of my own boss.
  • Siri, take me to your leader.
    • I have no leader other than you, Leigh.
    • Wait… Shouldn’t I be asking you this?
  • Siri, thank you.
    • My pleasure, as always.

Hit the comments. What unusual answers have you experienced?

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales

by Leigh Lundin

IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”