Riley Brennan, Erica Brennan, and Shayna Berman
Editor and Staff Writers
At the top of everyone’s gift list this holiday season is the hot new item that is essentially a stationary robotic personal assistant. Google and Amazon both have their own version of these voice activated assistants. The rise of bluetooth and voice-activated gadgets started years ago, with devices such as bluetooth earpieces and Siri, but this year, we saw Google and Amazon putting out voice-activated speakers that wait to be addressed by their known commands.
With Amazon’s model, which has been named “Alexa”, owners call out “ Alexa,” and the machine, which has to be plugged into a wall nearby, will respond with a blue glow at the top of the cylinder shaped machine and a female voice. Similarly, “OK Google” activates Google Home.
The problem is, Alexa and Google Home are always listening. The second either of the devices detects a voice, it is recorded and the notes are sent to either Amazon or Google servers. Amazon and Google store these audio recordings, which can be found in their servers or cloud. The devices pay special attention to what users are searching for online, what directions their using in maps, and what phrases they use in texts and emails. While all of this may seem like trivial information, both Amazon and Google can use this information to their advantage. Possible theories as to what the gathered information is used for range from allowing Amazon and Google to tailor the ads that come across their customers profiles to the government using it to collect information on people.
Both Alexa and Google’s machine have many abilities, one of which has raised concern among many people: the ability to know when no one is home. When Alexa does not hear any voices, she assumes nobody's home, proving that she is always listening.The thought of this device knowing when people are and are not home is frightening to students at New Hope. Junior Julia Mycek says, “It is disturbing to think that these devices record your conversations, and have the ability to know so much about you.” The main scare factor of the Amazon and Google devices is that buyers are unsure of what they are capable of. People are scared of the unknown sophistication of these robots and the consequences that may arise from them.
Google addressed these concerns and tried to comfort buyers, saying that users can access the data stored in the device by going to their My Activity page and delete information from there. Representatives of Google have also pointed out that there is a mute button on the device that can stop it from listening, but that ultimately defeats the purpose of the device.
Alexa and Google Home are not technically awake until they are addressed with their wake word. But in order to hear this wake word, the machine is listening to any conversations occurring, just waiting to be addressed. There are few differences between the two devices, and they are both supported by huge companies, who could arguably have a lot to gain from being a fly on the wall in their customers’ homes.