One Thing To Do Today: The robots are listening and they understand what they hear.

TL;DR: Don’t invite AI enabled cloud listening devices or apps into your home. 

image of electret microphone next to ruler. It is only about a centimeter wide.
By Kae (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Spoken natural language processing still takes a great deal of computing power. Manufacturers want to make their devices small and cheap so we’ll buy them. Wifi chips have plummeted in price.  The result is that Alexa on the Echo, and Siri on Mac catch when they’re called by constantly listening and sending that information to be processed to a server not under user control. Samsung SmartTVs, Google Home works the same way. No consumer protection laws or published third party audits shield end users.

While most companies swear up and down they make no recordings, Hello Barbie, while purportedly not always on, actually touts the fact that it records everything your child says to it. It comes with a seven page FAQ, btw.

Don’t forget about apps on phones and laptops. Shazaam doesn’t care that the fact it leaves the microphone always could be hacked.

Very concerning, even if you trust these companies, some legal scholars have posited that once a home is full of third party listening devices, that may jeopardize the expectation of privacy key to some 4th amendment protections.  “I’ve got nothing to hide” doesn’t mean nothing to fear.

I am no luddite.  I want the convenience that AI infused audio assistants provide. They’re so cool! People are running to buy them, which leaves zero market pressure for these companies to develop versions of their products that can run locally. I get it. Local home servers would require crazy hardware power, and the services would no longer accrue the insane dataset that drives the machine learning.  I don’t have a solution, but I do know Shazaam is off my phone. Siri is disabled. Alexa is not on my holiday gift list.

UPDATE: Nice 2016.12.05 article on Wired breaking down how the different voice assistants work.

UPDATE: 2016.12.06 These Toys Don’t Just Listen To Your Kid; They Send What They Hear To A Defense Contractor via The Consumerist


I make things that do stuff. The best, though, is teaching others to do the same. Founder of @crashspacela Alum of @ITP_NYU

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