Amazon’s patent application for an always-on feature for Alexa, its popular voice-activated personal assistant, has raised a lot of concern.
Understanding of Bible prophecy is a lot like driving into a smog-filled city like Los Angeles, where I lived for a time before getting saved back in the last 1980’s. When you view LA from a distance, it is very obvious that the whole city is ringed with a dark, brownish-gray layer of smog. But as you get closer, a funny thing happens. That same smog that was crystal-clear from a distance virtually disappears as you drive into it, and once inside, is nearly invisible. So it is with Bible prophecy as it gets closer to the time of its fulfillment.
“And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live. And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” Revelation 13:11,13-18 (KJV)
When I got saved and started doing Bible study, prophecy in particular, it seemed to me that nearly all of the Church was acutely aware of things like the coming Mark of the Beast. Writers like Hal Lindsey wrote and warned against the creep of technology, as did many movies of the time. We wondered would our televisions start spying on us, and really had a great awareness of things. Not so in 2019. In our day, billions of us wear and carrying global tracking devices which we call our mobile devices, and millions of us have put spy gear like Alexa and Google into our homes. Gone is the nervousness and apprehension of the One World Government and the Mark of the Beast. Now we openly embrace these things. And yes, our televisions are spying on us.
The reason why this is happening is because in the 28 years since I got saved, we are now right on the very edge of Bible prophecy and its fulfillment. The Pretribulation Rapture of the Church, the event that will kickoff the end times officially, remains as of this writing only a kitten’s whisker away from taking place. An unsaved world is right now wholeheartedly embracing these end times tracking devices, just as they will fervently adopt the Mark of the Beast in the days when Antichrist shall rise and rule. Getting all that, Alexa?
To the computers that now surround us, speech is just another form of data.
FROM BLOOMBERG: “If you’re already freaked out by the privacy implications of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo,” says Gizmodo, “we have some bad news.” A headline in ScienceAlert is even more direct: “Newly Released Amazon Patent Shows Just How Much Creepier Alexa Can Get.” You get the idea.
But the anxiety is much ado about nothing. An Alexa that’s always listening will likely prove more useful than an Alexa that isn’t; and, in any case, always-on devices are certainly our future.
As of January 2019, Amazon had sold more than 100 million devices that include Alexa. That number is certainly dwarfed by the billions of devices that include Siri and Google Assistant. But the difference is, those features come bundled with your smartphone, which has many other uses. When you purchase an Alexa device, you are choosing to invite Amazon into your home to listen to you.
EVEN THOSE WHO HAVE NO INTEREST IN OBTAINING AN ALEXA-LINKED DEVICE KNOW HOW THE THING WORKS, IF ONLY FROM AMAZON’S FLOOD OF TELEVISION COMMERCIALS. YOU SAY “ALEXA, WHAT’S TODAY’S WEATHER?” — AND IT TELLS YOU. WHENEVER ALEXA HEARS ITS “WAKE WORD,” THE SOFTWARE ASSUMES THAT THE USER WANTS ITS ATTENTION. THUS ALEXA “WAKES,” LISTENS AND PROCESSES THE WORDS THAT FOLLOW AS A COMMAND.
The difficulty arises because, in the words of the patent application, a wake word “may not always precede a spoken command, and may sometimes be included in the middle of a spoken command.” The application gives an example: “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by the Rolling Stones.” As currently configured, the system will respond if the user prefaces the request with “Alexa” (that is, “Alexa, play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’”) but not if the wake word comes at the end (that is, “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Alexa”).
Put otherwise, Alexa as currently configured does not match the way people speak. The user must structure each command around a relatively formal grammar. The invention described in the patent application would deformalize the means for addressing the device, thus enabling Alexa to fit more easily and naturally into everyday life.
Here’s Amazon’s solution: Alexa already stores what it hears in a buffer. Under the new configuration, according to the application, once Alexa detects a wake word, “the device will go backwards through the audio in the buffer to determine the start of the utterance that includes the wakeword.” After finding what it scores as the most likely start of the command, Alexa will perform a similar calculation to find the end. The command will then be processed exactly like one that was preceded by the wake word.
It all makes a great deal of sense. Why then the concern? It seems to me that there are two potential issues.
One is a worry about what happens to the information from the audio buffer. Alexa currently retains recordings for a period of time, helping it model the user’s needs and wants. This feature, which can be partially disabled, has already caused privacy problems. Courts have issued subpoenas for Alexa recordings. And as Bloomberg News has reported, human beings at Amazon already listen to much of what Alexa hears, in an effort to improve the algorithm. But no always-on feature was necessary for those recordings to survive.
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The second concern might be that an Alexa which listens more closely, responding to natural language commands, will soon become an Alexa that fades into the background. The relative formality with which the device must be addressed serves as a reminder that we are addressing just that — a device. The more casually we can speak, the more casual we will likely be about using it. We might, quite literally, forget that Alexa is there. Only the consumer can decide whether that is a feature or a bug.
Amazon says that it has no current plan to change the way Alexa listens, but bear in mind that the always-on feature can be implemented whether or not it is ever patented. In other words, if the notion of a device that is always awake worries you, the fact that a patent application has been filed shouldn’t cause you to worry more. Any device that listens to you can already be made always-on. (Including, by the way, your smartphone.)
We accept that our laptops and smart televisions are recording the choices we make and sending them we know not where. The only reason we imagine that our spoken words are safe is that speech is an older, more instinctive technology. We still think of speech as special, a distinctively human function, and when we are in spaces we consider private, we consider our voice as something heard only by our most intimate and trusted acquaintances.
But to the computers that now surround us, speech is just another form of data. The various voice-commanded devices of today, whether in our homes, smartphones or cars, work just like keyboards or touchscreens. The only difference is that the human input is a voice. And the only way they can get that input is to listen for it.
So let’s calm down. Yes, it can be fun to imagine a future in which our homes are entirely connected and yet we’re able to keep private everything we want to keep private. But that ship sailed long before Amazon decided to seek a patent on a minor and welcome change to Alexa. READ MORE
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