In the movie Back to the Future Part II, when Marty McFly Jr. sits down to watch TV, he doesn’t need to use a remote control unit to change channels. Instead, he barks commands directly at a big-screen TV and names six different channels that he wants to view. The channels instantly appear in a grid on the TV.
In another scene, Marty approaches a Garden Center fruit dispenser and commands it to give him some fruit. His first command is, “Hey, fruit!” He is ignored by the dispenser because it has been programmed to respond only to polite commands.
When the dispenser fails to respond, Marty says, “Fruit, please!” and the dispenser lowers from the kitchen ceiling. Then Marty says, “Thank you,” and the dispenser opens and allows him to grab some fruit. Marty then says, “Retract” and the dispenser rises back to its original position.
When Back to the Future Part II was made in 1989, the technology was not available to create electronic devices that were capable of responding to voice commands. Now, 27 years later, we have the ability to use voice commands to control computers, smartphones, appliances, and other electronic devices.
You may have heard of the Amazon Echo, which is a small, voice-driven electronic device that sits on a desk or table and responds to the name Alexa. The Echo can respond to commands requesting music tracks and radio stations and can answer questions and control “smart appliances.” More than 4% of the homes in America now have an Amazon Echo sitting on a desk or a table.
According to a recent article in The Economist, 20% of Google searches on Android-powered handsets in America are input by voice, and it’s a common practice for smartphone users to dictate emails, notes, and text messages into their phones rather than type them by hand.
I thought about the voice command devices in Back to the Future Part II recently when I read about a murder case that is scheduled for trial later this year in Bentonville, Arkansas. The man who has been charged with murder in the case is James Andrew Bates. He is accused of killing a coworker, Victor Collins.
According to the police report, last November Bates invited Collins and two of his friends over to his house to watch football. During the game, they drank beer and vodka. After the game, one of the friends left and Bates, Collins, and the remaining friend got into a hot tub to relax. They continued to drink until 1:00 a.m., when Bates’ second friend left.
Bates claims that after his second friend left, Collins stayed in the hot tub and Bates went to bed. Bates said that he woke up several hours later and found Collins face down in the water. He then called 911. A subsequent investigation showed that Collins died by strangulation.
During their investigation, officers found an Amazon Echo inside Bates’ home. After the murder charges were filed, the prosecuting attorney in the case served a subpoena to Amazon, which demanded that Amazon turn over all audio and any other data that Amazon has on file from the Echo that belongs to Bates.
Amazon has filed an objection to the subpoena and has refused to release any audio or data that it has from Bates’ Echo. The judge in the case may order Amazon to comply with the subpoena. If that happens, Amazon will have the right to appeal the order to the appellate court, and if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If you’re not familiar with the Amazon Echo, it’s a small Bluetooth-enabled device that is constantly in listening mode. According to Amazon, the device does not record what is said unless a word is triggered—usually the name Alexa—and a command is given.
All the audio that is captured by an Echo is saved in the cloud. As you may know, when used in this context, the word “cloud” ordinarily refers to the internet. In reality, the audio that is captured by Amazon is saved in one of many data centers that are populated with computer servers that are connected to the internet and are set up for the sole purpose of saving and storing data.
I’m not sure how the courts are going to rule on the issue of whether Amazon should be required to turn over the data to the prosecuting attorney. Of greater concern to me is that we are quickly getting to a point in society where there is no longer any privacy.
We are constantly being recorded — on our streets, in the businesses we visit, in public buildings, and in our homes. We know from information that was released to the media a few years ago that all our phone calls are recorded and saved in a data center that is operated by the United States National Security Agency.
It’s obvious that we can no longer take our right to privacy for granted. Regardless of where we happen to be, we need to be very careful about what we say and do. We can never be sure who or what is recording our words and actions.
Welcome to the future.