Amazon proves the smart home is as halfwitted as we are

After a woman says recordings of her domestic conversations were sent to a random contact, isn't it worth wondering about whether the smart home is a smart decision?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Video: Amazon opens more monetization tools for Alexa developers

I struggle with the smartness of the smart home.

We're supposed to have dreamed of the day when we could talk to machines and tell them to do things that we can't be bothered with anymore.

Alexa, turn the lights on.

OK Google, draw the drapes.

Hey, Siri, I'm going to speak slowly and in single syllables. Purl-ay the Bee-tuls.

Then there's the pure neurotic delight of being able to unlock our phones and stare at the nothing that's going on in the house right now, thanks to our wonderful Nest cameras.

Oh, look. The cat's asleep. The clock on the microwave is showing the right time.

And now Amazon has offered a story of such stultifying error-laden comedy that it managed to turn high tragedy into pure farce.

The tale was of a Portland, Oregon woman called Danielle who suddenly discovered that her domestic conversations with her husband had been recorded by her Amazon Echo and sent to one of his employees. Who must have been as riveted as Danielle and her husband were appalled.

Amazon's explanation was guffaw-worthy.

"Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like 'Alexa.' Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a 'send message' request. At which point, Alexa said out loud 'To whom?' At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, '[contact name], right?' Alexa then interpreted background conversation as 'right'. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely," an Amazon spokesman told me.

At which point you might feel uplifted that Alexa can be as brain-deficient as, well, so many of us.

You might also wonder how Amazon deduced all this, by the way. I understand that Danielle allowed Amazon to pull the logs of the recordings to find out what might have occurred.

This isn't the first time we've been here. Three years ago, Samsung's small print on its, ahem, Smart TVs revealed that not only could the company record the conversations of those using its voice-recognition feature, but could send it to third parties.

Hey, have a listen to what the Snodgrasses think about "Game of Thrones." They actually believe these families were once related to the Queen of England.

At the time, horror was expressed by all. Just as silence was emitted by several other, ahem, makers of Smart TVs whose products might just have been able to do the same thing.

Naturally, Samsung reacted swiftly. By changing its privacy policy.

Yet here we have Danielle and her husband apparently feeling quite content to have these wonderfully cheap Amazon Echo microphone-speaker things in, as KIRO 7 TV reported, every room of their house.

It's not my way to besmirch, but has our ineffable laziness driven us so far that we need such basic robots in every room of our homes and not wonder that they might be listening in, you know, more than we think?

Smart devices for the home and the office

Or, by buying them, do we feel we're participating in some fascinating future first foretold by TV shows we watched as kids?

I know that human civilization likes to think it's always making progress. And one day, as Google proved with its chillingly tawdry Selfish Ledger -- an idea of how robots could one day alter our behavior with the goal of "improving" us -- we'll have made so much progress that humans will be entirely dispensable.

But the smart home -- and so many robotic aspects that go along with it -- drives us toward a dream of perfection.

No one will ever steal from us. No light will ever be left on. No house will ever be cold when we walk into it. No finger will ever be sprained on a light switch -- but you still might sprain it by poking your phone too hard.

Yet, at the same time, does perfection make us happy?

Look at our emotional lives. We claim to love not perfect people, but precisely those with glaring imperfections. We know, somewhere deep inside, that perfection is dull.

So when you put that dullness together with the spectacular smart-but-halfwittedness of smart home devices, shouldn't we at least wonder what we're getting ourselves into?

Oh, wait. I get it. These robots are made deliberately smart-but-halfwitted, so that we'll fall in love with them.

Very clever.

Editorial standards