Voice control is great. You can shout at your electronics, and they actually do what you want. Unfortunately, all too often that means other people can also shout at your electronics, and they do what they want instead. Electronics aren’t very smart.
The latest group of gadget fans to discover the downside of talking to their hardware are owners of Amazon’s Echo, the all-singing, all-dancing home automation device produced by the Seattle-based retailer. Hiding inside Echo is Alexa, the (inevitably gendered) personal assistant: simply ask Alexa to perform a task, from playing your favourite song to dimming the lights in your smart home, and she will.
But she’s not very picky about whom’s giving the commands, as some listeners of American radio show Listen Up found to their cost. Rachel Martin, the host of the NPR-produced show, reported that a section covering the Echo managed to interact with the devices in the homes of several listeners:
“Roy Hagar wrote in to say our story prompted his Alexa to reset his thermostat to 70 degrees. It was difficult for Jeff Finan to hear the story because his radio was right next to his Echo speaker, and when Alex heard her name, she started playing an NPR News summary. Marc-Paul Lee said his unit started going crazy too.”
It’s not the first time a broadcast has hijacked voice controls. In June 2014, Xbox One owner found that their games console was perfectly happy to listen to Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul, who starred in an ad for the machine. When Paul shouted “Xbox on” to his machine, theirs also answered the call.
Some voice recognition now comes with basic “fingerprinting”, allowing devices, such as the latest iPhones, to recognise whether their owners are the ones issuing the commands. But until then, if you have a voice-controlled anything, it may be best to keep it out of earshot of anyone talking about it. Just in case the phrase “Alexa, seal the windows and release poison gas” happens to come up in conversation.