I was talking to my Uber driver, a Syrian refugee who arrived here two years ago, and we chatted about life and death and bombs until my eavesdropping Android made things weird.
The phone — a Moto Z Play Droid — would not shut up. I pulled it out of my jacket pocket and realized our conversation triggered an artificially odd response: It was reading the Wikipedia biography of Tony Montana, the psycho gangster played by Al Pacino in “Scarface.”
This was not a unique experience. Virtual assistants are snatching bits of conversations, often stuff just overhead on television, and running what seem like random searches that are often crazy tangents, awkward intrusions, and oddly ironic.
Or, you know, placing online orders without your permission.
Nuisance Or Marketing Opportunity?
Burger King sought to leverage the phenomenon on April 12 with a 15-second spot in which a counter clerk stares out of your TV screen and says "Okay, Google, what is the Whopper burger?"
The command triggered a long-winded Wiki recitation on Google Home and Android devices — some rascally Wikipedia updaters added unappetizing entries such as “rat” and “toenail clippings” — until Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) blocked that specific voice-activated command from its servers.
Wiki also locked down free-source editing access to the Whopper entry in the encyclopedia.
The fast-food joint may have been shut out on that specific command, but it got loads of free pub on social media and news outlets. It also raises the possibility of more targeted marketing attempts of the techno-guerrilla variety.
Et Tu, Google?
Google isn’t one to talk. Or maybe it is, too much. Owners of the Home, making casual conversation, were greeted with a chatty ad for the blockbuster “Beauty and the Beast” movie by the Walt Disney Co (NYSE: DIS).
The risky marketing play managed to tick off a lot of people on Twitter.
The rival Echo device and its Alexa virtual assistant from Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) also aren’t averse to occasionally crashing a conversation or overhearing some trigger words.
Some of the devices in San Diego homes went robo shopping after a local news report about a little girl who ordered four pounds of cookies and a KidKraft Sparkle mansion dollhouse by telling her desires to Alexa in her parents’ Dallas home.
“I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,’” Jim Patton, anchor for the morning program on CW6 News, triggering auto-purchases by viewers who had their devices too close to the TV.
Alexa And The Pachyderm Procurement Paradox
A loose poll of staffers here at Benzinga produced lots of anecdotal information about eavesdropping by Google Home, Google-powered Android devices, and Amazon’s Echo/Alexa virtual seer, but surprisingly little about Cortana by Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ: MSFT) or Siri by Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL).
Anthony Laverde said his 6-year-old daughter asked Alexa to send her 36 candy bars, and complied. Her punishment was giving the girl one candy bar and bring the rest to his colleagues at work.
Marsai Matchett got a Google Home for her birthday and realized it had always been essential to her life.
“I absolutely love waking up in my warm sheets and rolling over and asking what the weather is going to be and what traffic looks like, which determines if I can snooze my alarm and sleep an extra 10 minutes,” she said.
“I want my personal assistant to get my life together and rock out with my on Pandora” the streaming music site of Pandora Media Inc (NYSE: P).
She’s also a total fan of the E! Network show “Total Divas” and was watching an episode where a character wondered aloud how to rent an elephant.
“Google Home started searching elephant rentals,” she said.
Talk Dirty To Me
One of the latest targets for installing the voice-activated assistants is hotel rooms, which could lead to some interesting AI reactions to intimate pillow talk. And privacy issues.
How secure is this stuff? Alexa, Home and Cortana store your voice data and use it while that minx Siri does not.
But, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have mined your site-surfing computer searches for years. You can always turn the “always on” listening setting off, and there are ways to scrub out your voice information.
You can also go to Google’s “My Activity” site to rinse the residue of your daily web experience off your life, or just marvel or recoil at all the stuff you said and did.
One interesting, if not terrifying, aspect of interactive AI was included in a major patch last year for Windows 10, which basically prevented you from making Cortana not listen to you.
Computerworld columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols wrote that he was completely “creeped out” by Cortana’s Terminator-like eavesdropping.
My Stupid Phone
For a phone that is smarter than me, I have trouble getting any kind of response from my Moto Z when I actually ask it something, and its default reaction to almost everything within earshot is “If you just said something, I didn’t hear what it was.”
Since my car broke down and I sold my motorcycle, I have been heavily reliant on Uber and Lyft these days.
I work in Detroit, the metropolitan area of which contains one of the largest populations of people of Arab origin outside the Middle East. There is a huge number of people with families here who have been able to find asylum through those connections.
I talk to drivers, because ride-sharing entrepreneurs are among the planet’s most interesting people. If they happen to be from a place I covered as a war correspondent, I am enormously interested in their personal stories.
So a couple weeks after I meet this driver from Syria, one of my drivers was a retired highway engineer from Iraq who could not believe that the roads in his country were far better than the ones he was trafficking in the United States.
We talked for nearly an hour of rush hour, mainly about U.S. foreign policy and places he knew that I knew. With imperfect timing, my Droid snagged something of utter irrelevance.
Or was it?
It was the Wikipedia entry for a cartoon called “The Regular Show.” It’s about two working-class guys — a blue jay and raccoon, because it’s a cartoon, right? — who have regular jobs but imagine crazier careers.
Me, the wage slave, told it to the Uber/Lyft driver (many are both) as kind of a joke.
But, maybe artificial intelligence has more intuition than either it or I imagined.
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