Voice Activated Digital Assistants – Aren’t They Cute?

Some people think of them as robots, and others simply as a replacement for their keyboard.  Some affectionately call them by name:  Alexa, Siri, Assistant or Cortana, while others would be much happier if they could be sure these spies weren’t lurking anywhere in their house.

A bit of history:  Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri have been living in our smartphones, tablets and computers for a few years now and voice recognition has pretty much got over being the clumsy stumbling block it once was, to become a truly useful tool.  In the past year all four of these big players have upped the ante by introducing smartspeakers that sit on your coffee table and pair up with the digital assistants to do everything from changing the TV channel, to adjusting your furnace, to tweaking the oven, to telling you who is that guy co-starring in the movie you’re watching.  You start by saying a word that triggers the attention of the system, and then issue your commands or questions from your armchair.  The smartspeakers are pretty similar in their capabilities and the fact that one brand won’t work with another company’s system, and that they all have cute names.

Typing’s Out, Talking’s In is a good place to start if you are looking for an overview of the capabilities of VADA.  Chiel Hendriks from Google Canada paints a very positive picture (not surprisingly) of current and potential conveniences and shortcuts, and provides some insight on how helpful and ubiquitous these systems are poised to become.

But not so fast!  You didn’t think that the big four were bringing out all of this innovation without some sort of profit motive, did you?  Studies in both Canada and the USA have exposed some evidence in this area that causes quite a bit of concern.

Consumer Watchdog in the United States has done some digging into the patents related to this technology, with results that that produce some worry.  We think that most people who read  Home Invasion will wind up paying much more attention to this subject in the future – and avoid planning a bank robbery in the same room with their smartspeaker.  

By now most of us have encountered that spooky sensation when we have searched online for information about something and for the next several days advertisements somehow related to that subject have been incessantly appearing in our email or Facebook pages.  Without being able to put a specific finger on it, we know that somebody or something has been monitoring our data and is using that information, and probably making a few bucks out of the process.

Digital assistants and their smartspeaker henchmen just may be carrying that intrusion another step.  Remember a few paragraphs ago when we referred to “trigger the attention of the system”?  It now seems possible that no trigger is needed – at least not from you.

We recommend two reports from CBC Manitoba:  Digital Assistants offer convenience but what about privacy and   Experts caution about using digital assistants without knowing where your data goes deal with the subject in a lighthearted and breezy but intelligent manner. 

Paranoid? Maybe.  Worth careful study and informed judgement?  Definitely!

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