Fear & Loading: The Day Alexa Became Self-Aware?

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posted on July 19, 2017
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A 28-year-old convicted felon in New Mexico who was allegedly beating and threatening to kill his girlfriend is behind bars, thanks to the inadvertent intervention of Amazon’s Alexa smart-home assistant—maybe. Sometime during the July 2 incident the system dialed 9-1-1, apparently allowing emergency dispatchers to diagnose the situation and dispatch law enforcement personnel. At least that’s what local officials claimed. Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III told ABC News, “The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life.”

Days later, a spokeswoman for Amazon indicated Alexa probably didn’t make the call. An official for a national 9-1-1 organization concurs. Cue spooky music, preferably the theme for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Thankfully the story has a happy ending. The victim—whose name was not released—suffered only minor injuries and her child was not harmed in the incident. The suspect surrendered after a short standoff with deputies.

Voice-recognition technology’s ability to ride to the rescue has been detailed in a number of recent stories. In May, a man badly burned in a fire used Siri to summon first responders. A few weeks earlier, a group of four stranded in the water after their boat capsized in Florida—after discovering finger swipes don’t work on a wet phone—harnessed the same software to call for help.

Both applications are also often employed to improve home security by turning on compatible lights from distant locations, or setting an illumination schedule when homeowners are traveling. Cameras in doorbells now allow users to “screen” visitors from the “safety” of inside the building, monitor movement when at work or away or even engage in two-way conversations with unexpected guests. Bear in mind, though, regular firmware updates are critical to ensure the system isn’t turned into a cyber robot waiting to launch a denial-of-service attack or worse, hacked so residents are the ones being monitored.

The 9-1-1 dispatcher in New Mexico wasn’t consulting a Ouija board earlier this month, which has me worried. I don’t think Alexa can really become self-aware, but I do have our bedroom Dot temporarily trapped under a Faraday cage while my wife’s traveling. It talks to itself at random intervals—without prompting and only during work hours. It’s like Dottie is some sort of dog whisperer, too, always attracting my mutt with unscheduled and apparently hypnotic briefings on an upcoming household coup.    

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