Alexa called as witness?

“Alexa, tell me, in your own words, what happened on the night in question.” … actually the request is more like “Alexa, please replay the dialog that was recorded at 9:05PM for the jury”.  The case is in Bentonville Arkansas, and the charge is murder. Since an Echo unit was present, Amazon has been asked to disclose whatever information might have been captured at the time of the crime.

Amazon indicates that “Echo” keeps less than sixty seconds of recorded sound, it may not have that level of details, but presumably a larger database exists of requests and responses for the night in question as well.  Amazon has provided some data about purchase history, but is waiting for a formal court document to release any additional information.

Which begs the issue of how they might respond to apparent sounds of a crime in progress. “Alexa call 911!” is pretty clear, but “Don’t Shoot!” (or other phrases that might be ‘real’ or ‘overheard’ from a movie in the background …)  An interesting future awaits us.

Who do you want listening in at your home?

The Wall St. Journal has a note today comparing Amazon’s Echo and Google Home as voice activated, in-home assistants.   This space is fraught with impacts on technology and society — from services that can benefit house-bound individuals, to serious opportunities for abuse by hacking, for commercial purposes, or governmental ones. To put it in a simple form: you are being asked to “bug your house” with a device that listens to every noise in the house.  Of course you may have already bugged your pocket with  a device that is listening for the magic words “hey, Siri” (or the person next to you in the office, train, or restaurant may be carrying that “wire”.)  Robots that respond to “OK Google” or “Alexa” are expanding into our monitored domains. (What to folks named Alexa or Siri have to look forward to in this world?) (Would you name your child “OK Google”?)

The immediate use cases seem to be a cross between control of the “Internet of Things”, and the specific business models of the suppliers; online sales for Amazon Alexa, and more invasive advertising for Google. Not only can these devices turn on and off your lights, they can order new bulbs …ones that blink subliminal advertising messages (uh oh, now I’ve given someone a bad idea.)

From our technology and society perspective we need to look forward to the pros and cons of these devices. What high benefit services might be offered?  What risks do we run?  Are there policy or other guidelines that should be established? …. Please add your thoughts to the list …

Meanwhile I’m trying to find out why my new car’s navigation system keeps trying to take me to Scotland when I ask “Find McDonald’s”.


Eavesdropping Barbie?

So should children have toys that can combine speech recognition, wi-fi connection to capture and respond to them and potentially recording their conversations as well as feeding them “messages”.  Welcome to the world of Hello Barbie.

Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about technology abuse … but let’s see.  There are political/legal environments (think 1984 and it’s current variants) where capturing voice data from a doll/toy/IoT device could be used as a basis for arrest and jail (or worse) — can  Barbie be called as a witness in court? And of course there are the “right things to say” to a child, like “I like you”  (dolls with pull strings do that), and things you may not want to have your doll telling your child (“You know I just love that new outfit” or “Wouldn’t I look good in that new Barbie-car?”) or worse (“your parents aren’t going to vote for that creep are they?)

What does a Hello Barbie doll do when a child is clearly being abused by a parent?  Can it contact 9-1-1?  Are the recordings available for prosecution?  What is abuse that warrants action?  And what liability exists for failure to report abuse?

Update: Hello Barbie is covered in the NY Times 29 March 2015 Sunday Business section Wherein it is noted that children under 13 have to get parental permission to enable the conversation system — assuming they understand the implications. Apparently children need to “press a microphone button on the app” to start interaction. Also, “parents.. have access to.. recorded conversations and can .. delete them.”  Which confirms that a permanent record is being kept until parental action triggers deletion. Finally we are assured “safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.”  Apparently Mattel and ToyTalk (the technology providers)  have better software engineers than Home Depot, Target and Anthem.

Your DNA into Your Picture

A recent Wall St Journal interview with J. Craig Venter indicates his company is currently working on translating DNA data into a ‘photo of you’, or the sound of your voice. The logic of course is that genetics (including epigenetic elements) include the parts list, assembly instructions and many of the finishing details for building an individual.  So it may not come as a surprise that a DNA sample can identify you as an individual (even distinct from your identical twin — considering mutations and epigenetic variations) — or perhaps even to create a clone.  But having a sample of your DNA translated into a picture of your face (presumably at different ages) or an imitation of your voice is not something that had been in my  genomic awareness.

The DNA sample from the crime scene may do more than identify the Perp, it may be the basis for generating a ‘police sketch’ of her face.

The movie Gattaca projected a society where genetic evaluation was a make/break factor in selecting a mate, getting a job, and other social decisions.  But it did not venture into the possibility of not just the evaluation of genetic desirability of a mate, but perhaps projecting their picture some years into the future.  “Will you still need me .. when I’m sixty four?

The interview also considers some of the ethical issues surrounding insurance, medical treatment and extended life spans … What other non-obvious applications can you see from analyzing the genomes and data of a few million persons?

Soft Biometrics

Karl Ricanek has an article in the Sept. Computer Magazine, “Beyond Recognition: The Promise of Biometric Analytics“.  He points out a range of possible applications for biometric analysis beyond identifying specific individuals.   Many of these are ‘grist’ for the social impact mill.  Karl defines Biometric Analytics as the discovery of potentially interesting information about a person other than identity using biometric signal patterns. He includes in these emotional state, longevity, aliveness (if you a reading this, you are alive), continuous authentication, ethnicity, gender, age (demographics in general), honesty, concentration, mood, attitude, and even frustration with automated phone systems (‘dial 1 if you like talking to robots, dial 2 if you would like to toss your phone out the window, …’) A few specific examples include:

  1. Audience reaction research – detecting smiles, confusion, boredom, or distress. This could help editing movies, or developing higher impact advertising.
  2. Karl’s own research is on detection of age and longevity.  He has a web site, FaceMyAge that uses facial photos for this. Apparently if you look older than you are, you are likely to die younger, insight life insurance companies might value. Also cosmetic companies in terms of helping you to look younger (and maybe reduce your life insurance premiums?)

Karl anticipates answers to everyday questions  such as: “is the speaker on TV being honest?” (not needed for QVC, politicians, … or even many news programs now days); “How much money will I need for retirement?” (a discrete way of asking ‘how much time do I have left?’);”Will using this cosmetic really make me look younger?” — and the most dangerous question of all “does this outfit make me look fat?” (ok, Karl does not include this one.) Engineers and autistic persons are reputedly poor at reading the emotional state of others. Perhaps a possible Google Glass app would provide a some clues. Some devices for the improved transmission  of biometric signals have been developed as well.  My granddaughter just obtained a set of Brainwave Cat Ears which are supposed to indicate your state (focused, in-the-zone, relaxed) …. and, ‘ur, ah no you look just great in those cat ears, not fat at all’ (or at least that is what my Glass app suggested I say.) What biometric analytics would you encourage? What unanticipated consequences do you envision?

The Technological Implications of Society

Sometimes you just need to look at it the other way.  SSIT (our host and benefactor for this BLOG) is the Society for the Social Implications of Technology.  A recent issue of IEEE’s Computer Magazine focused on Gender Diversity in Computing.  In the introduction, Jane Prey (NSF) and Alf Weaver (U. Va) assert that “a lack of diverse perspectives will inhibit innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.”  This certainly matches what little research I’ve done on the contribution that diverse perspectives are a catalyst for innovation and solving problems.  In short … we need to consider the impact that society has on technology.

The types of people we employ to invent and develop technology, the funding sources we have for research, the mass media fad-de-jour, the winds of politics, and even the dolls our children play with set the stage.  Consider how these factors change as you move from the U.S. to Germany to Russia to India to China to Brazil, etc.  Each culture, government, and set of parental and social expectations influence what will happen in education and from there into research and industry.  Some of these environments highly value engineering, others lean towards sports or movie stars.  Some have significant investments in military technology, others in educational systems, and others in infrastructure.  Perhaps we get the Technology we ask for, or worse the technology we deserve.

I participated in a “Congressional Visits Day” this last month.  Two hundred or so scientists, engineers and the like went off to visit our elected representatives in Washington DC. Our request was simple — fund basic R&D or else … we were gentle with the “or else” — but think about it. Laser R&D occurred in the 1960’s, the applications emerged in the 1980’s. The Human Genome project ran from 1990 to 2003 — and the (GM) flowers are starting to bloom all over. The long lead time impact of research is legendary.  But when one society doesn’t fund research or technology they relinquish the leading edge to others.  No doubt the Brazilians (et al) will be willing to share with the U.S. the products of their investments and innovations, but the culture of innovation will thrive where it is fostered.  And, in this scenario, it will lack the insight that would come from having U.S. participants in the creative mix.

And the reverse of this is the value each of the diverse cultures above (and those not mentioned) bring to the table when we engage the full spectrum of human experience rather than the perspective found in the common cubicle mono-culture.  What side of the road should your intelligent car use?  Can your input device handle thousands of characters? Can the voice recognition detect intonations or clicks? And don’t limit this to cultural variations.  Is your display readable by red-green color blind individuals? How does a person with limited vision traverse your web site, your building, your city? Does your audio information system serve the needs of hearing impaired individuals?  Diversity comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, abilities, languages, religions, prejudices and even genders.

Society has real impact on technology.  Diversity is one tool for helping to assure this impact is as beneficial as it can be.