Even for early adopters always keen to embrace what the latest technology in the world has to offer, it can be difficult to escape the nagging voice of privacy concerns now attached to many of the exciting, new consumer electronics finding their way into our homes. Voice controlled digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are now a standard domestic feature for many. A new generation of kids are growing up with Alexa even sometimes taking over bedtime story duties.
We love the convenience of a quick spoken command being all it needs to be told the weather or play music. But what is Alexa or the Google Assistant picking up through its microphones the rest of the time? It’s conflict of interests many simply push to the back of their minds but can often remain as a nagging concern.
Two married computer scientists from the University of Chicago faced the same dilemma. When Ben Zhao came home with an Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo device his wife Heather Zheng was initially reluctant. Her first response was that she, in her own words “freaked out”, telling Zhao:
“I don’t want that in the office . . . I know the microphone is constantly on.”
But rather than simply demand that her husband return the device, Heather and Ben took on the professional challenge of developing a compromise – finding a way to take advantage of the convenience of having Alexa help out without the device’s microphone, which is always on, constantly passively picking up anything said in the room.
The Zhaos are far from the only people to worry that the encroachment of invasive technology is starting to mean our “circle of trust will have to be much smaller, sometimes down to your actual body”.
The pair came up with the solution of a wearable device worn like a bracelet and containing 24 miniature speakers. When the bracelet is activated, the speakers emit ultrasonic signals that are not picked up by human ears, except those of very young children. They are, however, picked up by the microphones on devices like the Amazon Echo and turn its recordings into white noise, blocking out their ability to filter out other noises.
When the couple want to actually use Alexa, they simply tap a button on their bracelet, turning off the ultrasonic cloak. Otherwise, while the wearables are turned on, the device is completely in the dark to anything going on in the room.
The Zhaos believe their invention could be manufactured for as little as $20, offering a compromise to anyone who would like to take advantage of the benefits of voice controlled assistants, without the privacy concern.
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