Alexa, Siri and Co. – Enjoy it Smart

Wherever you will find a smart device nowadays, you can be sure that Alexa, Siri and co. aren’t far away. Their duty: listen, understand and perform ­commands. Those who use them should do this cognizantly, and understand the various functions.

A real understanding of questions cannot be expected from voice assistants. Photo: AP Photo/picture alliance + amazon (M)

A real understanding of questions cannot be expected from voice assistants. Photo: AP Photo/picture alliance + amazon (M)

Voice assistants are on a triumphant march through the world of consumer electronics and seem unstoppable. They can play a requested track on command, or even create a playlist. They know the weather forecast and provide traffic updates and route guidance. They can also turn the lights on and off in smart homes and activate the heating in connected luxury cars. On our computers, they assist in finding documents and starting programs.

Those using these digital underlings are, however, all too aware of their shortcomings. Manufacturers like to advertise that their voice assistants feature artificial intelligence. But these software-based abilities are primarily used to recognize the spoken commands. The reactions that follow are highly limited. Alexa is well-acquainted with the repertoire of her creator, Amazon, and can rattle off results from an Internet search on trickier questions. A real understanding of the questions or logical deductions from the context of the current conversation cannot be expected. In a study by German consumer watchdog Stiftung Warentest, not one of the 18 voice assistants on trial were able to register a score better than ‘satisfactory.’ This was not so much a result of the user experience or functions, rather it was considerable data security flaws that resulted in the devices being marked down in the test results.

Apple Homepod. Photo: Apple

Apple Homepod. Photo: Apple

Apple Homepod

Market Launch:
USA 02/2018
Voice Assistant:
Siri
Additional Variants:
None as yet. Apple sold 600,000 Homepods on launch. Siri is featured in almost every Apple product: iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch and Mac computers. According to Apple, on more than 500 million devices worldwide

 

 

For the considered usage of the attractive helpers, one should be aware of what is enabling their reactions: devices such as Amazon’s Echo speakers or their counterparts from other providers are listening around the clock, ready to identify the trigger phrase ‘Alexa,’ ‘Hey Siri,’ ‘Cortana,’ or ‘OK Google.’ What they hear after those phrases is sent to their creators’ centralized processing centers for analysis. The programmers assert that only voice clips that are triggered by the corresponding command will be sent to the servers.

Harman ­Kardon Invoke. Photo: Harman Kardon - dpa picture alliance - AP Photo

Harman ­Kardon Invoke. Photo: Harman Kardon – dpa picture alliance – AP Photo

 

 

Harman ­Kardon Invoke

Market Launch:
USA 10/2017
Voice Assistant:
Cortana (Microsoft)
Additional Variants:
None as yet. ­Cortana is installed on 700 ­million Windows 10 PCs around the globe. Cortana can also be installed as a skill on Amazon’s Echo, and Microsoft also intends to offer Cortana on rival Google and Apple devices

 

 

According to the manufacturers, no one need worry that dialog stored by Amazon, Apple, Google or Microsoft is at any risk of landing in the wrong hands. But one thing that cannot be disputed is that voice recording can be started as a result of digital misunderstandings – such as when the trigger phrase is played on television. In one such case in San Diego in early 2017, US news anchor Jim Patton reported that a young girl had ordered a doll house and many kilograms of cookies via Amazon. The result? The Alexa devices of hundreds of viewers initiated the exact same order. In order to prevent such issues, one should either completely deactivate the order function, or secure it by means of an additional pin code. And if you happen to have an Alexander or Alexandra at home, it may be a wise idea to change the Amazon device’s trigger word ‘Alexa’ to a term less likely to cause confusion, such as ‘­Amazon’ or ‘Echo.’

Amazon Echo. Photo: Amazon

Amazon Echo. Photo: Amazon

Whether voice assistants should be placed in the bedrooms of younger children is of considerable doubt. Indeed, functions such as joke-telling are very popular with children. But to prevent cost-incurring orders, music subscriptions and access to inappropriate and harmful content, parents must change several of the device settings. Settings for Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant can be adjusted in the associated apps, while the Cortana configuration options are to be found in the Windows 10 Control Panel under ‘Cortana and Search Settings.’ In the same place, the user can find the complete history of analyzed voice recordings. Here, one can check what has actually been sent to the central server. Should something have been sent to the server unintentionally, this can be selected and deleted. Amazon also offers the additional ‘Free Time’ child protection program, which accommodates the needs of many children. Still, voice assistants – just like any other smart home device – allow their manufacturers to create comprehensive data profiles on their customers.

Google Home. Photo: Franziska Gabbert - dpa picture alliance

Google Home. Photo: Franziska Gabbert – dpa picture alliance

Part of using the obliging helpers in a considered manner is also the usage of the mute button for what it was designed to do – deactivate recording at inopportune moments. The devices should be banned from sensitive places such as doctor’s practices and bedrooms. If sensitive voice recordings aren’t possible in the first place, they can’t be inadvertently transmitted to a Apple, Google or Microsoft data center.

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