No one likes it when a stranger butts into their conversation.
Especially when they interrupt with some astonishing non-sequitur.
You’re watching TV and chatting about the painfully demanding couple on House Hunters International when a distant voice pipes up: “The circumference of the Earth is 24,901 miles.”
It’s Apple’s Siri, of course. Or Amazon’s Alexa. Or whatever you call your Google Home person.
I suspect you pass off these apparent accidents as merely one of those things. Yet, as a new study from Northeastern University reveals, they’re one of those things that may happen with alarming regularity.
The study estimates that activations of smart speakers when it wasn’t you who uttered any wake word occur between 1.5 and 19 times a day.
More entertainingly, the average time of activation is 43 seconds, which means that 43 seconds of your conversations might be recorded by the kindly souls at Smart Speaker HQ.
The researchers came to these conclusions by analyzing many TV shows and seeing which — for no obvious reason — set Alexa and friends to random activation mode.
They looked at five specific smart speakers: Google Home Mini first generation, Apple HomePod first generation, Harman Kardon Invoke by Microsoft, a couple of Amazon Echo Dot second generation speakers, and a couple of Amazon Echo Dot third generation speakers.
The worst culprit? Siri, of course. She’s not very good at understanding most things. Who can be surprised that random words on the TV set her off?
And we really are talking random words. Siri confuses her own name with “Faith’s funeral.” Alexa mishears “congresswoman” for hers, which at least has some poetic truth buried within. Google’s Home Mini assistant seems to think she was being summoned on hearing “I don’t like the cold.” As for Cortana, well, she thinks she’s “Colorado.”
You might feel colorado with anger that these devices seem quite so inaccurate in their aural sensitivities.
But what are you supposed to do about it? Hope any conversation that might inadvertently be recorded will be so banal that no one will use it against you?
Well, this week Robert Frederick, a former manager at Amazon Web Services, told the BBC that if he wants privacy he knows how to get it. He simply turns his Alexa device off.
Perhaps these smart speakers don’t make your life so much easier after all.