Tag Archives: voice

‘Alexa! Give Us Back Our Freedom!’

“Alexa, can you tell me the impact of the wholesale shift to voice search and voice communication over the internet?”

Amazon’s wildly popular personal assistant, Alexa, probably cannot answer that question for you. And even she doesn’t perceive how she is making us dumber and taking our choices away.

The world is surely moving from text to voice as the primary interface on the internet. The rapid rise of Amazon’s Echo (and its smaller version, the Echo Dot) personal assistant device was the biggest story of the 2016 holiday shopping season. As of September 2017, Amazon had sold 15 million Echos, and Google had sold five million of its own personal assistant device, the Google Home. This is impressive, for a category that just a year earlier had not existed.

Even more significantly, we are switching to voice as the means of communicating with our smartphones. More than 20% of mobile searches were conducted via voice in 2016, according to Google: a roughly a 35-fold increase in voice search since 2008. Google also found that about two-thirds of its users conduct voice search via mobile phone several times per day and that roughly half of its users use voice and text search interchangeably.

See also: Could Alexa Testify Against You?  

Such growth has been enabled by dramatic improvements in voice recognition, through use of powerful artificial intelligence systems that use machine learning. We are now in a positive feedback loop for voice: As more people talk to their smartphones or home assistants, more data become available to companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple to feed to their personal assistant systems. As of May 2017, Google’s speech recognition error rate was 4.9%, down from 23% in 2013.

Businesses have recognized the shift in accuracy and customer engagement, and are piling in. Amazon now boasts more than 15,000 Alexa “skills,” which are capabilities that allow customers to make personalized requests. For example, travel search providers let you plan vacations via Alexa using voice commands; Pizza Hut lets you order pizza; Nissan and Hyundai let Alexa owners start their cars’ engines and set their temperatures; Capital One lets customers check their bank balances; and Campbell Soup Company supplies recipe ideas.

The shift to voice search and voice communication will surely make many things more convenient for us but will dramatically reduce our online choices. The reason for this is simple: When results are spoken back to us, we will receive only a few options, because humans cannot absorb 10 results in succession and adequately choose between them. We can’t remember them all. This switch in information density has profound implications, and voice search can subvert our purchasing choices in subtle ways.

Prior to the advent of the internet, when we looked at the Yellow Pages, we had many pages of options. When we searched online, we had even more options but tended to only react to those on the first page. Increasingly, those first-page results are sold to the highest bidder. On mobile phones, the searches mean even fewer options, and the paid ones utterly dominate the screen.

In the results of a voice search, we are usually down to only two or three options. People just can’t remember more information presented to them vocally. So your search for “best hotel in San Francisco” will yield only a few results. The response to “I want to find a pizza place in Palo Alto” might not show the pizza joint that is the best in town, because it has not bought its spot in the search results.

Most worryingly, the shift to voice will further consolidate power in the hands of the big providers, such as Amazon, Google and Apple.

When we ask Alexa to add olive oil to our shopping cart, we are ceding our choice to Amazon. Maybe we prefer Californian olive oil, because we know it is less likely to be adulterated. Or maybe we would rather buy the lower-priced of two favorite brands. With voice, which olive oil goes into the cart becomes Amazon’s decision. Unsurprisingly, research firm L2 found that Amazon is more likely to put its own proprietary products into your shopping cart.

In theory, we could ask for more voice results to get richer searches. Or perhaps voice assistant systems will eventually be improved to include capacities such as following up to ask us whether we want, for example, a particular type of pizza.

See also: ‘Alexa, What Is My Deductible?’  

But even if that happens, the world of voice is taking us back a century in terms of information density. Talking to a voice assistant is a lot like asking a friend for restaurant recommendations, except that friend is a giant technology company that makes its money from the recommendations it provides us. That doesn’t sound very friendly.

This article was written by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever.

Preventing Violent Crime on Campuses

Violent crime, a major and growing problem in this country, is exacerbated by the fact that many crimes go unreported. But there’s a simple fix to the lack of reporting: Make it easier for people to tip off authorities anonymously.

Developments in communications technology and in social media can play a decisive role in increasing reporting, especially among young people. Once authorities have more information, they can not only track down more criminals but can develop a fuller picture of where and under what conditions violent crimes occur, and can develop better prevention programs.

In California, the Visalia campus of the College of the Sequoias has a program  allowing individuals to report suspicious behavior on campus to local police anonymously via text, voice mail or email.

“Our best resource, by far, is the students and faculty right here on campus,” Chief of the Police department Bob Masterson told the student newspaper . “Even if you’re not the victim, you could be a great witness.”

Many students said the program, TipNow, keeps them safer; they also consider it a good idea for all campuses.

Such programs are essential because violent crime remains an unfortunate truth in the U.S. According to the FBI’s national crime statistics, 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the U.S. in 2012, and  even seemingly safe, self-contained campus environments like schools, colleges, hotels, hospitals and corporations are not immune.

At U.S. hospitals, the violent crime rate per 100 hospital beds rose 25%, from 2.0 incidents in 2012 to 2.5 incidents last year, according to research released by the IHSS Foundation at the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety (IAHSS). The rate of disorderly conduct incidents experienced the biggest jump, from 28 per 100 hospital beds in 2012 to 39.2 last year (a rise of 40%). A separate IHSS Foundation study found that 89% of the hospitals surveyed had at least one event of workplace violence in the previous 12 months.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey reported the following statistics for workplace violence between 1993 and 1999:

  • While working or on duty, U.S. residents experienced 1.7 million violent victimizations annually, including 1.3 million simple assaults, 325,000 aggravated assaults, 36,500 rapes and sexual assaults, 70,000 robberies and 900 homicides.
  • Workplace violence accounted for 18% of all violent crime.

From  1997 through 2009, 335 murders occurred on college campuses, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (2010).  Three-fifths of campus attacks in a 108-year span occurred in the past two decades.

Yet many crimes go unreported to campus authorities. A 1997 study about campus violence by Sloan, Fisher and Cullen found that only 35% of violent crimes on college campuses were reported to authorities.

There are various reasons for not reporting crimes. For example, many may regard a crime as too minor a matter to report or may consider it a private matter. Many studies have shown a reluctance to report crimes or other suspicious activities out of fear of the authorities or of criminal retribution.

For instance, in February 2009 in San Gabriel, Calif., two gunmen opened fire inside a coffee shop, killing one and wounding six others, but police had trouble finding witnesses to what appeared to be a gang-related attack even though the shop was crowded with at least 40 people. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore was quoted as saying,  “We know people saw something, and we need them to come forward and help us solve this crime.”

Too many Americans are inculcated with the belief that “the authorities will attend to it” – without considering that, in many cases, the appropriate law enforcement agency is unaware of a danger. Although many domestic terrorist events and campus shootings are committed by those whose previous actions were seen by those around them as odd, or even threatening, too often these observations go unreported.

This is why the concept of anonymous reporting is important: to get more information from the campus community. This anonymity is now possible.

TipNow receives tips via SMS/text, email, voice and mobile-app. When the tips hit the TipNow server, the sender’s information is encrypted. The tip is then disseminated to a pre-defined set of administrators on the system via email and SMS/text. The administrators can ask for more information from the tipster, still anonymously. For extra security, the server will delete all identifying information in 24 to 72 hours.

The system looks like this:


In a recent interview, an anti-terrorism official (name withheld at his request) expressed his view on prevention: “The ability to gather information, sift through it to find what is useful intelligence – and then rapidly get that information to the right people – can and has made the difference between tragedy and that tragedy being averted.”