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Here's A New Game To Explore: "Messin' With Alexa"

I will acknowledge that when “Siri In A Can” – the Amazon Echo – first came out, I was one of the first to buy it. And it was fun for awhile, until it dawned on me that in order to answer when I said “Alexa”, it kind of had to listen all the time. What it did with what it heard all the time wasn't something I felt great about, so about two years ago, I just unplugged it and put it on a dresser in the guest room.

But no more. I’ve discovered a new use for it as more and more of these revelations about Alexa and her listening habits make the news. Remember those Jack Link beef jerky commercials about “Messin’ With Sasquatch”? Well, in my house, it’s now “Messin’ With Alexa.”

I started first by placing it somewhere that anything it heard wouldn’t be very useful: The guest room bathroom. After years of my wife and I being in each other’s way getting ready in the morning, I discovered a few years ago that you can shower and get dressed over there and nobody critiques how you hung up a towel, or complains if you miss the clothes hamper by a few inches with an otherwise near-professional toss. Why not put it there?

As an Echo is also a decent speaker for music, the product is also a handsfree tool that you can say “play Channel 311 on Sirius XM” or “play WJFK on Tunein” and it will do so. That’s helpful in the morning when you’re rushing around, so to a degree it has been useful.

But now it has evolved into part of a game. Every morning I have questions for Ms. Alexa. When it was reported this week that some family in Portland had its conversation recorded by an echo and emailed to someone else, I started by saying “Alexa, do you talk to the CIA?” While most of the time Alexa answers with “sorry, I didn’t get that” she did immediately respond to that with “Amazon takes privacy very seriously”, which I took as an admission that Siri in a can gets that question a lot, so programmers gave her an answer.

I ask Alexa what she thinks of Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos (she replies he’s “5 stars”) and a host of other questions suggesting she’s Mata Hari in a matte black finish, but for the most part she just says “sorry, I didn’t get that.” While predictable, I still brace for that moment Alexa’s voice drops to a deep bass and I hear “that’s enough questions, funny guy.”

At times there are surprises. Since the only things you’re going to hear in a bathroom are water running, a toilet flushing, or a sound that can best be described as “thunder without lightning”, I ask Alexa if she’s listening to me sing along with the songs she’s transmitting. “Sorry, I didn’t get that” is her answer. But then I ask “Alexa, can YOU sing?”

Within seconds, Alexa is belting out a pirate song. Not a recording of a pirate song, but Alexa and her voice singing a pirate song. It’s not a short one either, going on for close to a minute. Ask it again and she responds with a country song. All told, I learned from being a pest and asking over and over again, she has five different songs programmed into her responses.

So yeah, leaving an Echo on in an area where people actually talk does seem to be as rational as dialing up your favorite intelligence agency and leaving the phone on speaker in the middle of the den. But put in the right place in the home along with a bunch of foolish question squarely aimed at annoying the cantankerous can, “Messing With Alexa” can be a fun diversion.

Right up to the moment you notice the helicopters hovering over your roof :)

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Hey FB: Forget Artificial; Show Some REAL Intelligence

Following Mark Zuckerberg the last few days testifying here in D.C. has been entertaining to say the least. A lot of it is just political theater, but there have been moments that make you think this is all the plot of some bad, bizarre science fiction novel.

Take for example, these three situations where Zuckerberg struggles to give any sort of a direct answer (which generally means “I know the answer but I don’t want to tell you”):

  • When a user deletes their account, does the account actually get deleted and completely wiped off the server? Twitter users described Zuckerberg’s response as similar to the way Chester Cheetah stutters in answering questions in commercials. I’m going to take that lack of a direct answer as a “no, the info does not get completely wiped off the server.”
  • When a person logs off Facebook, does this mean Facebook is no longer connected to a user’s browser? Zuckerberg’s tapdancing on this was really interesting because if a program I have terminated still stays in my browser and looks around, it’s not a program. It’s a virus. And since it’s Facebook, all users have already allowed it to come through the firewall and anti-virus protection. There’s nothing to stop it. Don’t think it happens? Search for something when you’re logged off. Then notice how Facebook miraculously shows you an ad for the same thing the next time you log on.
  • Does Facebook accumulate information on people who have not even signed up for a Facebook account? Zuckerberg gave an answer that is basically “yes,” saying they need to do so for various reasons. As an example, if you allow Facebook to access your contacts, they’ll build what Zuckerberg calls a “profile” of each whether they have a Facebook account or not. Click on a link to a story on Facebook and you don’t have an account? They’ll grab info on your IP address, computer, phone, etc. and eventually match it up to other information they’ve gotten. Why? Because it’s what they do: gather and sell personal information.

But the part that really made me think of Zuckerberg as more like “Dave” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was his insistence on Artificial Intelligence saving Facebook and the world. Indeed, there is actually a headline in The Washington Post this morning that says “Zuckerberg says AI will solve Facebook’s problems.”

Which is kind of frightening.

Artificial Intelligence is nothing new. It can be looked at much like you’d perceive an actuarial table on steroids. An AI program gathers as many facts as possible about a particular subject, then with the help of an algorithm, uses all the past factors as a way to predict a present or future situation. Us old-timers call it “experience,” but AI systems don’t sleep, eat French fries, or have senior moments.

In non-subjective areas, I can see how it would be invaluable. But in subjective areas, it can have limitations. And quickly yesterday, someone by the name of Jon Stewart Mill on Twitter presented a thread (he also links to this article to back up his thoughts) showing just how wrong all of that could go:

  1. Here's a serious worry about AI. When AI is allowed to do its thing based on standard statistics, social justice activists see the results as being "biased," when in fact they just represent reality (as indicated by the data, at least).
  2. How do you "correct" this fake "bias"? Introduce real bias. Make the AI begin with a warped picture of reality or a messed up value function. Make the AI actually racist, sexist, etc. That will be really messed up. Could it happen?
  3. SJWs now have serious power in tech, as we know. When Big Tech brings in "ethicists" or "ethical consultants," you can bet they'll be SJWs. The programmers themselves, who may not be SJWs won't have a say on this.
  4. The SJWs will make the programmers design the relevant AI's so that it gets them the "non-biased" results they want. Disaster and injustice will ensue.

So what he’s saying is if you analyze all the facts and they don’t say what you want it to say, some might change the formula until it does. Is that possible? Certainly. Could the AI Zuckerberg develops possibly have a particular bias so a preferred message shows up on everyone’s timelines and ones he disagrees with don’t? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Could other media outlets use the same program if it were offered? Who knows?

All of which makes me sad. I was a journalist for a decade out of college and strongly believe in it. I’m not a fan of The Washington Post slowly abandoning what used to be impartial journalism in favor of more advocacy of a particularly school of thought, but I am still a 7-day-a-week subscriber. The Loudoun Times-Mirror is delivered for free into my driveway every week, but if they charged, I’d pay for that too. Society needs newspapers and journalism that investigate stories that are swept under the rug, and whether it’s online or a dead-tree product, it needs to be supported.

But if publications or products try to control the message too much, it won’t change people’s minds; it will merely make many doubt the institution. Then when an editorial product does find the answer to something totally unbelievable, it will be the worst of all worlds; the truth was revealed, but nobody believed it.

So, Mr. Zuckerberg, put that AI product on the back burner. Focus instead on regaining your company’s credibility, because there are actually a lot of us who enjoy seeing pictures of our friends and reading about their lives. Without having the details of those lives sold on the open market.

Doing that wouldn’t be artificial. It would be a sign of REAL intelligence.

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