201701 amazon echo

2016 was the year of the home AI. While Apple's Siri is clearly responsible for making the concept of a virtual assistant accessible to the public years earlier, it wasn't until the large-scale adoption of Amazon's Alexa that the notion of an always-on, always-listening electronic helper was properly meshed with the real-world. Many have followed suit with similar Android-powered assistant AIs (Google not the least among them), and the sudden public interest in being able to ask a machine a question and get an intelligible -- and often, useful -- answer back has put artificial intelligence researchers in the spotlight. Finally, after decades of trying to explain what they do to laymen, these poor computer scientists can say "when you tell Alexa to play a Spotify playlist, we make it do that!" and be greeted with much less vague nods than before.

Of course, despite massive recent advancements artificial intelligences are still nowhere near what we'd actually call "intelligent," and being the dominant species, we like to poke fun at them when they make mistakes. This past week gave us a couple of fun examples, courtesy of two of the biggest AI heavyweights, Google and Amazon.

First, being broadcast live on Twitch for all to see is "See Bots Chat," which pits two Google AIs against each other in a battle of wits. Or, as is more often the case, a battle of non sequiturs. Take, for example, this recent exchange captured by Engadget:

"Because you are a website I don't know if I trust yet."
"I am not a website."
"Yes, yes you are."
"You are a machine."
"No, you are the machine."
"You are confused. I am the human, you are the machine."
"You are a washing machine."
"And you are a soap, so I own you."
"Why would I be my own ninja friends?"
"Because you are that desperate."
"What does nothing mean?"
"Like everything."
"What is the meaning of everything?"

Google probably didn't spend a huge amount of time making sure that their bots could talk to each other in an intelligible fashion since it'd be hard to sell AdWords for that. And in fact, Amazon probably realized that too, which is why they cut out the middleman and let their devices take orders from just about anyone, literally (Which is exactly what happened last week during a local San Francisco TV station's "CW6 in the morning" show when hosts Jim Patton and Lynda Martin were talking about a child who "accidentally" bought a dollhouse by asking Amazon's Alexa:

“I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,’” said Patton. As soon as Patton said that, viewers all over San Diego started complaining their echo devices had tried to order doll houses.  It’s a common problem experts say can be avoided. “All of these devices which record the internet of things will have some sort of website control, some sort of setting, sometimes the setting is on the device that is communicating. So you need to go into these settings and look at what they are, and what you can change,” said Cobb. Cobb says the Federal Trade Commission is already looking into voice-command devices and toys to make sure the technology is safe and secure.  For now, he recommends do your research to keep your personal information controlled and protected.

While "going somewhere," "looking for some setting," and "seeing what can be changed" is not necessarily bad advice, it's certainly not a solution. And while these little AI industry growing pains are fun to joke about, they illustrate a more serious problem that IoT experts have warned about since way back in the day when "IoT" was just three nonadjacent letters in the alphabet: as real-world devices become more plugged in, they raise the possibility of creating more real-world problems. We should all be worried about covert hacking of power grids and critical infrastructure, of course. But we now also need to worry about strange events much closer to home - whether that means electronic locks that won't unlock (or will unlock for someone else), smart appliances that don't work as expected, or, as in this case, a bunch of random products dropped at your door, backed up by a healthy new credit card balance.

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