Alexa, Are You Hacking Me? Silence

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Out of sheer curiosity more than anything else, I recently bought an Amazon Echo Dot with its Alexa Personal Assistant function. If you are unfamiliar with the Echo concept, it is an Artificial Intelligence tool that can carry out a wide range of tasks on your behalf when you issue spoken instructions. As a basic example, you can activate the device by the start word, usually Alexa, and then telling it to play a Spotify playlist or a single track.

Not exactly earth shattering stuff but bear with me.  As I said, I bought the device out of curiosity; after using it for two weeks I don’t know whether to be excited or scared crapless! Here’s why.

Links To Amazon Servers

Setting up the device is relatively simple. You just plug it into the mains socket and then link it to your home wi-fi.  It works by linking you to Amazon servers in the cloud where it keeps track of your spoken commands.  So, if you say “Alexa, what is the weather today,” it will link in with Accuweather and the device will speak the forecast to you.

It sounds great, but Accuweather has a village 15 miles away as having my local postcode. Not Amazon’s fault, but it somewhat tarnishes the experience when Kirkby Thorpe is enjoying glorious sunshine and it is precipitating down here with a vengeance!

From here I will call the device Alexa; it seems churlish not to as we are now on speaking terms!

Alexa links with a wide range of existing services such as Todoist, Google Calendar, Spotify, Amazon Music, TuneIn, Audible books,  assorted BBC channels, The guardian (UK and US versions) and the list is growing.   These access points are called Skills.  If you live in the US you can use If This Then That (ITTT) to connect to an even wider range of services.

Selling Your Soul

We all know that when you sign up to Google service you are selling your soul, if not to the Devil but the biggest data mining company in the world.  Given the benefits of linking with Google, I have long resigned myself to the fact that the people at Mountain View know more about me than I do!

Also, with the Snoopers’ Charter being passed into law in the UK, Theresa May and her colleagues at every department from MI5 to The Food Standards Agency (Why the latter FFS I have no idea) can call up my every thought and Internet history.

Amazon has traditionally been considered a retailer, but now with the data from its various AWS packages and now Alexa, all that will change.  Stacked away on a server somewhere it will; record what my favourite bands are, my daily calendar events, tasks that I have to carry out,  where I will be travelling to by asking for weather somewhere other than my home,  and so on.  No doubt when I next buy a Rebus thriller for my Kindle, Alexa will have spilt the beans about my Spotify music tastes and I will be plagued with associated advertisements exhorting me to buy an untold number of CDs!

Less Scary, More Cuddly

I order to make it less scary and more cuddly, Alexa allows you to delete every spoken command but when you come to do this it warns you that this act will make Alexa’s working with you more difficult as she will have unlearnt everything from and in your voice to date.  And there’s the rub.  Over time Alexa will note that you prefer the Allman Brothers Blue Sky to Jessica and will, I assume, remove it from the playlist.

There is also the convenience. I can now get in touch with my feminine side and start multi-tasking.  While typing this story I am arranging my weekend’s calendar, telling Alexa to create numerous tasks on Todoist and searching for guinea fowl recipes.

As with all AI oriented projects, Alexa will get smarter over time.  There has been an explosion of third party skills that you can tap into, but to be honest most of these are complete, unmitigated garbage.

Now, the biggest fear I have is that Alexa is secretly bugging me with the flashing rings on its top and transmitting my awful singing of Statesborough Blues to the music police at Amazon!




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