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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.

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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.

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