Virtual Assistant or Virtual Spy

I last wrote about virtual assistants and using voice commands almost two years ago (Google Home). Since then, the quality and options have gotten much better. Now when I verbally dictate a message, the transcription is near perfect. This is likely attributed to a combination of the system getting used to my voice and improvements made to the technology.

Now that I’ve mastered dictating all kinds of things into my phone, the next step would be to invest in a virtual assistant, like Google Home or Alexa. Like most new technological advances, I’m both creeped out and fascinated at the same time. My first reaction was complete aversion to having yet another device hooked up, synced, and monitoring me in my home. We’re always being forced to make decisions between Control and Convenience.

In addition to my specific voice commands, I want to know what else the device will be listening to? How easy will it be for somebody to hack into it and listen to what I’m saying, or send their own commands? When I first heard about virtual assistants, which all require some kind of command (e.g., “OK, Google”) to notify the device that you’re ready to give directions, it never occurred to me that the device would stay on all the time. I assumed it would be the voice command that activated the virtual assistant, but if it wasn’t alert and ready, how would it register the command was given.

In one sense it’s like voluntarily putting a surveillance device in your home. A recent article in The New York Times, titled “Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do with It?”  described some of the other uses being considered when one engages with a virtual assistant. Some of the options discussed included having the device listen for keywords in conversations to tailor advertisements.

I have to confess that once I started thinking about using a virtual assistant, I considered many scenarios when hands-free voice commands could be useful. For example, I like listening to the radio or podcasts while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. While washing the dishes the other night, I realized I had forgotten to turn on the podcast first. My hands full of suds, I looked longingly at my smartphone wishing I could utter a few words to automatically start the podcast.

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