The Bedside Singularity, Amazon's Alexa As a Murder Witness
Big Brother may be watching you - but Alexa is listening. And recording. Learning, even.
Amazon’s Conversational AI assistant may have been a silent party to and is at the center of at least two active murder investigations, one in New Hampshire, the other in Arkansas.
The victims had the device in their homes - which became crime scenes - and prosecutors believe Alexa knows Who Dunnit.
She is being ordered to give testimony about what she heard over the course of a three-day period back in 2017, contemporaneous with the murders of Christine Sullivan and Jenna Pelligrini - who were stabbed to death in their Framingham, NH home sometime during that block of time.
Similarly the Arkansas case, which involved the murder of a former police officer by his friend, apparently after an argument that occurred sometime over the course of an evening of football watching and heavy drinking.
It's assumed Alexa was all ears - all the time. And that whatever she heard, she also remembers.
Technically, it's Amazon that's being ordered to hand over the recordings.
But however it’s phrased, Alexa was a witness - and not just to a crime. Many people assume that Alexa is passive technology - a device that does what it is told to do - and only when it is told to do something.
That it - she - works like the Ask Google feature most smartphones have. Or the way Siri does on an iPhone. Meaning, the device only responds to direct queries. That it isn't eavesdropping on (and recording) private conversations.
And Alexa (and Google and Siri) can do a great deal more than listen in.
They can dim the lights and adjust the thermostat to your liking - as well as find a good Chinese take-out place, tell you how your stock's doing, what the weather will be like tomorrow and even how old Nancy Pelosi really is.
It's not quite Ex Machina (she's mobile - and much prettier) but it's getting there.
Alexa learns. Gets to know you, and your preferences, so she can anticipate them.
Like a small child figuring out the world around her, Alexa correlates spoken words with specific actions. Your voice commands operate as "wake words" which trigger the appropriate response. Over time, Alexa acquires a sense of who you are, your quirks, habits, likes and dislikes.
You and she become . . . intimate.
It's amazing stuff. Provided, of course, it's consensual.
And there's the rub.
People unbox Alexa and place her on their countertop - or by their bedside. But does the act of purchasing Alexa to play music, dim the lights and so on also mean they're ok with Alexa listening in on and recording every conversation within earshot?
Does it mean they're ok with Amazon being a party to those conversations and - probably - making use of whatever Alexa hears? Can Alexa be hacked? Do they want Alexa to profile them?
And above all, can they say - no thanks?
Keep in mind that even if you don't have Alexa, your friends probably do - or will. And almost everyone already has Ask Google or Siri, including everyone around you. Chances are you were recorded by something in the last 48 hours.
These devices are becoming ubiquitous - almost as much a part of your family's life as your dog or cat. Only more so, because your dog or cat can't give testimony in court against you - much less turn the coffee machine on.
In the 2002 film, Minority Report, an Alexa-like AI targets Tom Cruise's character with holographic and very personal sales pitches as he walks through a mall - tailored specifically to his profile - based on all the data about him aggregated by the AI, which knows him as well as his girlfriend or wife.
A wife or girlfriend who follows you around, all the time. Who is never out of earshot. And remembers. Everything. Sound like fun?
And what about Alexa herself? At what point does her developing intelligence acquire consciousness - and with it, legal and moral rights as well as legal and moral responsibilities?
In the context of a criminal case, how does a defendant confront the witness arrayed against him - and cross-examine Alexa? Does she have the right to plead the Fifth? Is her speech protected?
Is her "testimony" reliable?
Or is it as much hearsay as anything we say? And is Alexa capable of lying? How would we know? Or prove - or disprove - it?
These issues transcend Alexa because she is only a part of the inexorably developing Internet of Things.
If you own a smart TV, it’s all ears, too.
There is a built in microphone - used ostensibly to give the TV voice commands, as with Alexa - that is also apparently always on, too. There have been reports of active data-mining of people’s conversations within range of the TV’s ability to hear them . . . unless they specifically "opt out." Perhaps even when the TV is off.
Vizio - one of the largest manufacturers of smart TVs - recently had to pay a $2.2 million FTC fine for having monitored (and data-mined) the viewing habits of 11 million people without their knowledge, much less their consent.
Laptop and desktop computers have ears - and eyes - too. People assume the camera (and microphone) is off unless they've turned them on. But that assumption - as in the case of Alexa and Google - may prove to be very wrong.
It is entirely possible that the computer screen you're looking at right now is also looking back at you.
And perhaps, smiling. Why don't you ahead and wave.