So you better watch out — these devices can see you when you’re sleeping, and know when you’re awake. So you do need to think about whether they are bad or good, watching you in the living room, or listening in the bedroom, or conversing in the kid’s room.
First, as we have seen from the initial excitement of Internet-connected devices (“IoT,” the Internet of Things), very often these devices are not particularly well secured. As a result, hackers could break in to them, and from there into your home network. On the larger scale, huge “botnets” of millions of poorly secured wireless cameras and Internet routers have been discovered that propagate by scanning for more devices to break into, and can be used by hackers to trigger massive cascades of Internet traffic to attack target sites.
Similarly, your personal audio and video collections that are stored on these various Internet servers in the cloud are also potentially exposed. The company that is collecting your clips may be using them for internal projects. And they may be exposed by hackers or by error. We all know that hackers have broken into all kinds of interesting sites, including the Office of Personnel Management servers that keep government employee records (including security clearances).
Then there’s the general privacy concern of streaming audio and video from your house to the outside world. Voice-controlled speaker devices like the Amazon Echo work by constantly listening to the voices around them. When they think they hear the “wake” word (e.g., “Alexa,” “Hey Siri,” or “OK Google”), they then record the live audio and send it to the company’s cloud servers for analysis. (Just don’t talk in your sleep…) These recordings may then be stored and further analyzed later. (Amazon does provide an interface for you to see what recordings it has stored, and to delete them.)
Interestingly, the commercials for these products show families happy using them not only in the kitchen and the living room, but also in children’s rooms, and in bedrooms (so you can wake up and immediately ask for the weather).
Then products like the Nest cameras and the Nest Aware service can just continuously stream your camera video and audio to their cloud servers, where it is analyzed in real time with video and audio algorithms to alert on interesting motion or noises, and also to perform face recognition for familiar faces. Again, Google shows an interior bedroom view as an example usage of this product. Or you can sign up for a 24/7 third-party monitoring service so other people can watch what’s happening at your house.
Also consider the Mattel Aristotle for Kids. Based on Amazon Alexa, this was designed as a digital companion for your kids, from birth to teens. As a baby monitor, it could recognize when the baby wakes up and play a soothing lullaby. Then as your child grows older, it could read books, host sing-alongs, play guessing games, and answer questions until your child goes to sleep. When your kid gets to school, it could help with homework and give foreign-language lessons. It even could help teach manners by requiring kids to say “please” when they ask for things.
Mattel cancelled the product this October after some push-back, objecting, among other things, that it “attempts to replace the care, judgment, and companionship of loving family members with faux nurturing and conversation from a robot designed to sell products and build brand loyalty.”
Coming soon. The next advance in stepping up from digital assistants to digital companions is the new Kuri Intelligent Home Robot, due next spring for $799. This is described as an “adorable home robot with a cheerful personality,” that is explicitly designed “with personality, awareness, and mobility,” so that it “brings a spark of life to your home by creating a joyful and inspiring sense of personality.”
Kuri’s personality comes from his expressive eyes, friendly robot language of beeps and bloops (that you can learn, like R2-D2), multi-color chest light, and touch sensors in its head so she can react to your touch. (The designers encourage you to assign gender as you like.)
She is mobile, so it can follow you around the house, explore your home, and learn the rhythm of your household, including which room belongs to whom. Of course she can plays music on request, read the kids a bedtime story, and connect with your smart home devices.
Kuri’s default behaviors include exploring autonomously, following your family and pets around the house, and automatically choosing to shoot video clips (it has an HD video camera in one eye), in order to “preserve the best rare candid moments of your life at home.” Candid moments, we should note, that could be naughty or nice.