Gadgets like Amazon’s Echo promise to simplify our lives by infusing our homes with an intelligent virtual assistant that can do everything from dimming the lights to ordering more toilet paper.
But all that automation can create some unforeseen problems.
Consider what happened when public radio broadcaster NPR aired a story about the wonders of the Amazon Echo last week.
The radio program discussed how the Echo uses a virtual assistant called Alexa, which is similar to Apple’s Siri. Alexa is very eager to serve, always listening for an Echo owner to utter the magic “wake word” — Alexa — followed by a question or instructions (Alexa, Find me a Chinese restaurant; Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes).
After NPR mentioned the magic wake word on the air during the program, some Echo owners said that their gadgets began behaving strangely. One listener told NPR their Echo reset their home thermostat. Another listener told NPR that when the Echo heard the trigger word, it started playing an NPR news program.
Welcome to the future.
Some passive-listening technologies, such as the Google Now voice-activated assistant that’s available on smartphones like the MotoX, can distinguish between different people’s voices, so that it won’t be triggered by the wrong person.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the ways the Echo might be able to prevent these kinds of situations.
Still, if this gives you dystopian fantasies about a sleeper army of machines that can be summoned with a simple trigger word, you’re not alone. Former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson imagine this scenario:
3/ It’s just a great hack. If you overpower the FM band, you can control people’s homes. Maybe even a bullhorn would do it?
— Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) March 10, 2016
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.