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Digital Assistant Blues

On Safety and Efficiency

Tech: Mixed Messages

We watch the Super Bowl either for the game itself or for the commercials. Companies pay top dollar for advertising during the most-watched sporting event of the year in the United States. And a lot of them are really good.

Last February’s lineup of Super Bowl commercials included spots for Amazon’s Echo. Amazon altered the ad “to minimize Echo devices falsely responding in customer’s homes.” The company didn’t tell us how it changed things, though a Reddit user speculated that the commercials were muted—made intentionally quieter so that our Echo device didn’t, say, order another Echo while we were waiting either for the game to return or for the next commercial.

Katie Pyzyk’s great article in Transport Topics—“Trucking Technology Begins to Find Its Voice”—gives us an overview of the progress and pitfalls of developing digital assistants for the trucking industry. She writes of the two main benefits—safety and efficiency—in crystal clear terms:

“Voice commands enable drivers to send and receive important information without taking their hands off the wheel to launch an application on a device.”

Companies are at work on modifying, for example, Alexa to respond to specific carrier needs while on the road. Picture Alexa being proactive, alerting you to maintenance issues, announcing that your oil is low, or the temperature in your reefer is rising.

Two problems arise, both of which must be addressed long before any public release.

First, all that ambient noise—from the engine, the wind, the highway—will compete with our modified Alexa, which is always on, always listening, waiting for our command. We adapt to such noise all the time and can usually tune it out or turn up the radio. Alexa needs that flexibility to function efficiently.

Second, welcome to “psychoacoustic hiding,” where the bad guys are able to embed messages into audio waves that are unheard by humans, though your digital assistant can pick it up and, worse, act on it.

So people might hear a recording of birds chirping, while Alexa hears something very different, like “Deactivate security camera and unlock the doors.” The negative possibilities are concerning and mind-boggling.

Safety and efficiency take on whole new levels of importance. With or without that digital technology, keep both hands on the wheel.