Alexa, what are you doing in my room?
How much would you pay someone to invade the privacy of your home? Or to search your premises continuously, breaching your barrier against tyranny? Similarly, would you pay to have your home wiretapped? And your life tapped?
Now consider Alexa, the personal assistant residing in Amazon's Echo products. These are available at prices beginning under $50. In today's red-hot technology domain, such devices are seen as exemplars of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) technology.
Highlights from the Echo product page include these:
- Echo connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, to play music; make calls; set alarms and timers; ask questions; check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores; manage to-do and shopping lists; control smart home devices; and more – instantly.
- Just ask Alexa to control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more. Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.
Fifty years ago, as a Ph.D. candidate in USC's new Computer Sciences Department, I took courses in emerging A.I. theory. A.I. consisted of nothing more than algorithms readily implemented with digital computers and related programs. That is still the case, but the power, density, speed, and cost factors in the hardware domain have facilitated previously unthinkable processing tasks with brute computational force.
A.I. has not broken through the mysteries of innate human intelligence. Instead, techniques have evolved for applying massive computational power to simulate various human capabilities. Prominent examples include interactive systems in the newest automobiles. They recognize voice input, speak back in response, and perform various tasks at our behest. All use inexpensive digital hardware running highly evolved computer programs. The irony is that while their performance seems dazzling, they are in fact doing what they do through an extremely fast series of the simplest acts.
The obvious difference here is Alexa's seeming humanity, as opposed to the more technical domain of a laptop or smartphone, where operating systems, applications, security, user interfaces, and other technical details are the coin of the realm. Alexa is always there waiting to "help." She's an unobtrusive addition to any setting, available in a variety of designer fabric coverings. With a soothing, maternal voice, she is Big Brother reimagined as a benevolent family member.
A recent Wall Street Journal article on technology includes these passages:
"Everybody's trying to get into everybody else's space because what they're really fighting for is somebody' else's time," said Mr. Wolf, a former Yahoo Inc. board member in an interview before his presentation. The most fertile ground is the digital voice assistant found in smart speakers and smart-phones."
... "[T]he internet giants are rushing to make more advanced products that could prove crucial to controlling consumers' searches, their homes and habits[.]"
Echo, where Alexa lives, while complex in one sense, is remarkably simple at the human interface level. It has speakers for talking to you (with Dolby performance, no less), a microphone for listening to you (with similar high-performance specs), and a wireless interface to the internet via your home network. Newer versions include a video camera to watch you even in the dimmest of ambients. All versions are noticeably absent display screens and other interactive devices like a touch panel, keyboard, or mouse.
Pretty simple and non-threatening, though stuffed full of proprietary hardware and firmware. Don't worry if these terms are unfamiliar; that's part of Alexa's allure. She can quickly become your roommate or, more correctly, a digital friend. Ask Alexa to do anything you desire; if she can't, she'll tell you so or suggest an alternate way to proceed, all while chatting with you in familiar, courteous tones.
So far, so good. The immense power of Echo and Alexa lies not in voice recognition and voice synthesis capabilities, but in the connection to the internet. Voice recognition simply digitizes inputs to the microphone and analyzes them for language content. Voice synthesis is the reverse of this process – creating spoken words from series of ones and zeros.
The magic of digital technology is that it reduces everything to elementary operations, executed by incredibly fast, inexpensive, and nearly error-proof electronic building blocks suggestive of basic LEGO pieces. That the A.I. technology is primitive is not as relevant as the very fact that humans are investing billions in it...but for what purpose?
Now consider the Global Digital Infrastructure (GDI), a term I use to describe the sum of all interconnected digital resources in the world, regardless of whether interconnected by the internet, the cellular system, or other means. The GDI consists primarily of electronic hardware and computer programs and is a living thing, growing by leaps and bounds on a daily basis. It includes all the related resources of governments friendly and hostile.
The main point here is that simple as the Echo device may seem, once you connect it via the internet to the GDI, it is accessible to any other processing element of that global structure. Anyone who listens to and speaks to Alexa opens himself up to monitoring by and voice prompting from a vast universe of digital resources operated by unknowable entities in unknowable locations. And without realizing it, he willingly provides input to "big data" archives.
This is what "the cloud" means. Instead of being connected to your neighbor's laptop, or Amazon's server bank in Timbuktu, you're interacting with a vast, unstructured, indeterminate array of digital resources in the ether.
"Hacking" on a growing scale regularly makes news, and a troubling collection of malevolent actors are breaking into our digital homes. Some do it for amusement or to impress their friends. Some do it to enrich themselves. Others do it to subvert governmental, societal, or political stability.
Hacking is only one danger inherent to the GDI. Online retailers work to shape our buying habits, and others work in more subtle ways to control our thoughts and inclinations. Orwell's 1984 is no longer a fictional contrivance.
Most of this takes place through daily use of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices in our personal and professional lives, when we're conscious of our interaction with the GDI. Establishing a personal, oral connection between yourself and the GDI through an innocuous-seeming techno-tchotchke, on the other hand, is an entirely new form of human-GDI interaction. Siri, Alexa, and others are exploiting this domain, with aggregate intellect and innovation beyond imagining. Adding a video camera into the mix multiplies the possibilities by orders of magnitude.
The net result is product capability directly in conflict with the right to privacy we consider fundamental to our freedom – and unwitting exposure, literally and figuratively, to the vast predatory instincts that find expression through the GDI and the access it grants everything connected to it.
Can you imagine exposing a child to this risk, as if the device were a talking doll of decades ago? No assurances or parental controls provided by the maker can provide ironclad security while offering the wonders of the GDI at the mere uttering of words.
I hope you can fathom the serious risks involved in these devices and their underlying technology. Appreciating the dangers they represent to our children and grandchildren is the first step in recognizing the security vulnerabilities they impose upon us all. This isn't about technology; it's about generational technology naïveté conflated with human willingness to corrupt and control through the most innocent of means. It is about natural impulses to abuse.
These devices are a modern-day version of illegal search and seizure. Combined with the leftist-driven breakdown of societal values, we face a future where we all become cattle to powerful elites. The only question is how willingly we do so.
I've reflected a considerable amount on the subject of this column, motivated primarily by concerns that one of these devices could end up in a grandchild's room – yours, mine, or someone else's. Much more needs to be written on the subject, but for now, I leave you with these thoughts:
Schaeffer's First Law of the Digital Age:
The Global Digital Infrastructure (GDI) connects all human life on the planet into a single, giant, metastasizing organism throbbing with incredible potential for advancing human good, expanding knowledge exponentially, invading our lives with unimaginable malice and evil, and transforming unsuspecting users into helpless and obedient cyborgs.
Schaeffer's Second Law of the Digital Age:
Each breakthrough in utility deriving from advances in the Global Digital Domain is accompanied by equal or greater vulnerabilities and potential detriments to quality of life. Anything that can do amazingly great things for you can almost always do terribly awful things to you as well.
Schaeffer's Third Law of the Digital Age:
It's impossible to make or enforce laws to guard the people against the dangers of global digital power and impossible to prevent exponential growth in this power. The Zuckerbergs and Bezoses and Googles of the world may propose to use their power benevolently, but they plan to use it and grow it without limit. They claim they'll be good masters, but they mean to be masters.
Pem Schaeffer is a retired business development executive, and blogger. Survey his efforts at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com.