back to article TV anchor says live on-air 'Alexa, order me a dollhouse' – guess what happens next

A San Diego TV station sparked complaints this week – after an on-air report about a girl who ordered a dollhouse via her parents' Amazon Echo caused Echoes in viewers' homes to also attempt to order dollhouses. Telly station CW-6 said the blunder happened during a Thursday morning news package about a Texan six-year-old who …

surely

with so many results for 'dollhouse' it would have asked which one you want and how much you wanted to spend?

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Re: surely

No it would not. It would pick the one that gave the largest kickback.

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Facepalm

Re: surely

Evidence suggests you are wrong. Also, don't call me ... ah, never mind.

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Re: surely

Anybody who has one of these should understand that it is 24/7 surveillance that can be used against you

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The old, old, old reason to not use entirely-voice interfaces.

"Hey, Siri, I was watching the news and what I heard can't be right.

Siri, can you just delete all my files?"

Whoops.... bye bye files.

Probably that phrasing itself wouldn't work, but saying "Call Mum" near Siri would bypass screen locks and dial your mum for years before it was discovered and an option given to turn it off. My old colleague didn't believe me, so we did it to him.

I have voice in one place - in my car (and I didn't want it but it came "as standard"). But I have to press a button before it starts listening for commands, so it never unwittingly activates and cannot connect online (so the worst that could happen is someone could change a music track or redirect my satnav to a new location).

But Siri, Cortana, "OK Google" (works in raw browsers on many Chrome- or Android-based devices with no special setup), XBox, and now Alexa etc. don't have that. They have a voice command to activate.

Which means a) they are activatable by voice alone, b) they can be activated by accident or pre-recorded message and c) THEY ARE LISTENING ALL THE TIME and trying to recognise what you say. Whether or not they are transmitting that data is besides the point. It's constantly listening out for anything that sounds like a command, recording audio and analysing it. It doesn't take a genius to work out that when they start getting compromises on those devices, you're stuffed and being listened to 24/7 by who-knows, and most likely NOT someone you've agreed a terms of service with.

Voice is a stupid idea.

It's slow, inaccurate, can be activated unintentionally, and cannot distinguish users. You might as well just put a command-line on your sideboard and let anyone type in anything. "Delete all files", "Buy this on Amazon", "Cancel my subscription", "Tweet that my boss is an idiot".

It's game over. Stop doing these stupid things. Nobody needs an always-listening device to order a loo-roll or do a Google search.

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You are wrong on "cannot distinguish users"...

This can be fixed with something like Nuance voice print (http://www.nuance.com/for-business/customer-service-solutions/voice-biometrics/vocalpassword/index.htm)

The tech existed 15 years ago should be mature enough to differentiate between you, spouse, tv presenter, and your kids...

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"and cannot distinguish users"

Oh, but it can. It can also determine age within certain ranges, gender and a multitude of other things. There are some excellent books available on information to be determined by audio surveillance. People have been better than computers up to now, but the computers are getting very close and even better for some types of info. All you need to do is add a web connected video camera and some system somewhere is going to put the two together and be able to pull up a picture every time it hears a certain voice. 1984 is a little late in coming.

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Anybody who watched Blake's 7 knows that voice activated computers ought to

1) Confirm their activation word with a chime or a very irascible "yes?"

2) Ask "Confirm?" after being given an order.

Given that an 80's TV sci-fi scriptwriter can get it right, it's a little sad that Google, Amazon et al. can't quite manage to get there.

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I haven't seen a voice recognition system in 30 years that can get any sentence I say (no matter how simple or deliberately articulated) first time.*

I certainly have never seen one that could use voice as any kind of distinguishing feature between speakers.

The claims are all very nice, but the accuracy still is - and will be for a long time - abysmal.

*Honestly, people test me because they think I must be over-egging it. They bring out their Siri's, their cars, etc. and I say a simple sentence or command that they all understand. I don't have a strong or unusual accent, it's slightly Cockney, that's about it. I can put it in, or take it out of my speech and nothing voice recognition can get even the simplest of commands, in perfect lab conditions.

So it certainly can't be RELIABLY used to tell who I am, it can barely tell what I'm saying and that's without detecting subtleties and nuances of speech and trying to tell me from, say, my brother who - despite the fact that we sound NOTHING alike, everyone confuses us on the phone. Again, people don't believe this, even after meeting us both, and then they ring one of us.

Judging by the school I work in, which has had people try to come in and sell Dragon etc. or library systems, on the basis of voice recognition for writing school reports, or even identifying children for library access (totally non-critical system with humans always present) any number of times and 100+ staff testing them, I'm far from alone.

Voice is NOT anywhere close. In fact, the most impressive voice recog I ever used was bundled with a Sound Galaxy NX Pro ISA card many years ago, along with a speech synthesis software. That got better recognition than ANYTHING I've ever seen or used since (including Dragon, Siri, etc.).

A test:

OK Google, what's the closing time of nearest supermarket?

Just resulted in a blank Google page with the words "slime" and "carpet" in it and nothing else. The room is completely silent except for a cat sitting in the corner licking its bum. The cat probably recognised more of the sentence.

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Holmes

"So it certainly can't be RELIABLY used to tell who I am"

Actually, this post suggests that it can: you're that mush-mouthed guy with the perverted interest in slime carpets ... whatever those are. Just because Siri doesn't know what you're saying doesn't mean she can't recognize you.

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@ Lee D

I can't even get "OK Google" to function, though I admit my accent is a little screwed (I'm from Yorkshire, so it's quite deep, but was mainly raised by my Irish nan, so picked up talking at speed, which is fine if you're a high pitched Irish person, but not if you're low pitched Yorkshiremen).

I've similarly had colleagues baffled in disbelief - one colleague in particular who apparently uses it for everything, even dictating text messages in his thick rural Aussie twang (I've emigrated to Sydney) which it gets perfectly, so he brings over his phone to me and says "All you need to say is OK Google" - which it immediately pops up with it's little animated listening screen.

So we cancel it off, wait a good time for it to reset, and I say "OK Google" and..nothing, I try four times, nothing, he's like "But you're saying OK Google clear enough, I can tell that" and sure enough, it pops up ready to search (the I can tell that is a dig as he often jokes he can't make out what I say).

If the future goes to being all voice activated, I shall be left in the past - and given the aforementioned issues and I can generally type faster than I talk, I'm not all that bothered..

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Closest time?

For me, that phrase almost worked... It gave me: "what's the CLOSEST time of nearest supermarket?" Of course, the results didn't show me any closing times.

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The problem is that the kids who write today's software weren't even born in the 80s. All babies are born stupid and inexperienced.

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Joke

Yes, but what about me with a flu or drunk (which ever comes first).

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Joke

Perhaps you should have said "the nearest". I have met quite a few Americans who complain about having difficulties in understanding the English some Brits produce. One could suppose those programs are made and tested in the USA. I am not impressed by this whole voice recognition thing but it's obvious it's getting better and that there are individuals who will welcome it, like say blind persons etc. Text to voice has also improved while still awful. The Joke Alert for the "the".

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"CONFIRM"

If Alexa asked for confirmation, and they showed it on TV, it would get the confirmation.

The bug is that everyone addresses their assistant the same way. They are all Alexa, they are all Siri, they are all OK Google. The first thing they should do is ask you to give them a new name that can't be their actual name.

Of course, if you let your little girl name the Alexa, they will all be called Elsa, and we're back where we started...

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Happy

Re: @ Lee D

"I can generally type faster than I talk". That's nothing, judging from some of my comments, I can type faster than I think.

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@MachDiamond

I completely agree, I have user specific voice control for required functions on my ten year old Nokia mobile. It is the one feature I need on the phone, however it is not entirely voice, a single physical contact on the headphone is also required to wake up the feature making for relatively secure user specific voice activation. What a shame modern phones cannot appear to do the same basic job. The modern items cost so much, do everything I do not want or need, yet cannot supply my one want making them useless for me.

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Anonymous Coward

That's easy, you should have two language settings - one for English, one for American. :) :)

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Blakes 7 and Microsoft

Before they shut down Xbox Studio, there were plans for a new series...

Zen: STATE COURSE AND SPEED

Blake: Alpha Cygni, Standard by Four

Zen: CONFzzzZZZzzzTtttt

Avon: Zen's showing the Red Ring of Death again. Vila, it's your turn to call tech support.

Vila: Why is it ALWAYS me ?

Avon: Because you're the only one of us stupid enough to sound like they need tech support. Get dialling !

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I've said it before and I'll say it again.

Back in the days of Windows Mobile, MS made a truly brilliant product[1] for it called Voice Command. One of its best features was that, after asking it to call someone for you, it would read back what it was going to do and wait for confirmation to proceed. It's voice recognition and handling of dialects and foreign words / names was excellent too.

I'm continually amazed that while MS could apparently get it right on a sclerotic ARM core with sod-all memory, the likes of Amazon, Google (and MS - hah!) still can't while using powerful servers to do the job.

[1] Which, like all the best things to come out of Redmond, they then completely forgot to tell anyone about.

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Voice is a stupid idea.

Not all of us are able-bodied. While I agree that most people don't need voice, for those with missing/disabled limbs this sort of thing can be quite helpful.

Of course, they've probably had some decent voice-operation software on their computer for a long time.

Agree with the rest though.

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Re: "CONFIRM"

The first thing they should do is ask you to give them a new name that can't be their actual name.

My ancient Sony Ericson T209(?) effectively had that. You recorded a word for it to listen for (eg name) and after that it tried to listen for further commands. It didn't come with a pre-set name, you had to put it in yourself.

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Re: Blakes 7 and Microsoft

Avon: Because you're the only one of us stupid enough to sound like they need tech support. Get dialling !

I think the movie "Starship: Rising" was at least set in the Blake universe, though much later than B7. IIRC it had a number of planet and other names similar to B7, though no overt references.

IIRC it also appeared to be a pilot, or attempt at one..

Villa wasn't anywhere near as stupid as he looked/acted. I recall one episode in S4 where he pretended to be drunk to get out of some messy job Avon and Tarrant(?) wanted to send him on

BTW.. The S1 episode "Duel" and one episode soon after appear to use a smartphone, even simillar form factor. You see the device later next to the transporter controls, complete with what looks like a homescreen grid of icons on screen... Must take another watch of it...

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"I'm continually amazed that while MS could apparently get it right on a sclerotic ARM core with sod-all memory,"

My Motorola Defy from years back had voice control. Only worked with Bluetooth but it could do a number of things and was quite accurate. All within the phone, all about as powerful as the original Pi.

My Samsung has loads more memory, loads more cores, loads more megahertz, and a voice assistant that can work any time. But I refuse to use it as it is utterly incapable of doing anything for itself. The first use requires you to agree to a bunch of T&C for having your voice data processed by Nuance. Why? Oh, I can understand if you ask "when is the next train from Paddington with first class carriages?" then it might need to do some work; but why can't it so "what's the time" or "call [name]" for itself?

Seems like we're going backwards - perhaps because data grabbing and profiling is the more important thing these days?

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Thumb Up

I'm continually amazed that while MS could apparently get it right on a sclerotic ARM core with sod-all memory, the likes of Amazon, Google (and MS - hah!) still can't while using powerful servers to do the job.

I see things the same. I've seen all sorts of small devices with reasonable Voice Reg over the years, and apple marketed "a computer that understands you" back in the 90's. But the more powerful systems get, the less usable VR seems to get. They also seem to get more stupid in many cases.

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Seems like we're going backwards - perhaps because data grabbing and profiling is the more important thing these days?

El Reg, we could use another icon for posts like these. One with a hammer and a nail in it should do the trick quite nicely, for "heyrick" hit the nail right on the heard.

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Re: Given that an 80's TV sci-fi scriptwriter can get it right, it's a little sad that Google, Amazon et al. can't quite manage to get there.

From my experience that is because companies don't use radio scriptwriters to design the voice dialogue interface. This was a lesson that I thought had been learnt back in 2000....

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Re: "CONFIRM"

'The bug is that everyone addresses their assistant the same way.'

That's not a bug, people are way easier to train than machines so you make your machine comprehend only one type of input and train the chimp to perform.

"Alexa, get me a banana"

Banana ordered

"ook"

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Anonymous Coward

Yes, but what about me with a flu or drunk (which ever comes first).

Or both, they're not mutually exclusive :)

I tried the Google thing and I'm pretty sure there's now a record on a US server somewhere that I am daft enough to search for closets in supermarkets :(.

I have shied away from the whole externally processed voice recognition stuff, and not just because I don't want some uncontrolled entity collect data on my habits or keep a perfectly digitised voiceprint on file for later use in some unspecified manner. I already know just how precious little privacy we have left under a triple assault of data thieves like Google criminals and the governments that are supposed to protect us - I am certainly not going to add to that erosion by volunteering to have a listening device in my home.

I love gadgets, but it pays to remain cautious.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @ Lee D

judging from some of my comments, I can type faster than I think.

Judging from all the corrections in mine, my thinking must be dyslexic...

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Anonymous Coward

@TeeCee: nobody at Microsoft would willingly release a product they couldn't keep selling updates for, which is why what has emerged from them has been at best mediocre me-too stuff.

The subscription model is even less likely to make them invest in new ideas - after all, they now get your money, automatically.

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tfb

You are making a silly assumption. Amazon want you to spend money, the whole point of these systems is to make that easier. Just like one-click purchases years ago, they want to make impulse purchases more likely. No, the system is not going to ask for confirmation before sucking money out if your account and into Amazon's.

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Re: @ Lee D

Reminds me of this sketch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAz_UvnUeuU

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Joke

Re: "CONFIRM" - Voice Captcha needed?

"If Alexa asked for confirmation, and they showed it on TV, it would get the confirmation."..

Maybe the "confirmation" phrase should be unique/change per each command:

Poor, drunk sap: "Alexa, please purchase 10 Tesla Model S vehicles"

Alexa: "Please confirm by saying "%)&@()*&$)@&$@)&$*@&)$#(&@)(#&$)(@*&$"

Poor, drunk sap: "arrrrrrrggggggg"

Alexa: "Would you like a different confirmation phrase?"

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Re: @ Lee D

Meanwhile here's someone complaining they haven't made Alexa multilingual: http://www.osnews.com/story/29591/Alexa_Amazon_s_operating_system

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Anonymous Coward

On Android the OK Google by default is always enabled when on the home screen with screen on *or* if charging. As I charge mine overnight next to my clock radio I realzied this when occasionally during the Today program the phone would suddenly exclaim "I didn't get that question, can you repeat it" (or words to that effect) ... I then went to find out why iot was doing this and found the control that is now disabled.

(Was amused to see this scenario being used in last week's Sherlock!)

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Re: "CONFIRM"

"Alexa, get me fork 'andles"

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Re: "CONFIRM"

That's not a bug, people are way easier to train than machines so you make your machine comprehend only one type of input and train the chimp to perform.

"Alexa, get me a banana"

Banana ordered

"ook"

DON'T CALL IT A CHIMP!!!

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I got that command to work but half of the nearest supermarkets are the other side of the Thames Estuary apparently - that's another issue entirely but one that should probably be sorted ou before we start relying on computers to do what we ask.

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Thumb Up

When they make more money off you without requesting confirmation and by enabling voice ordering by default, guess what happens?

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Re: Blakes 7 and Microsoft

+1! I vote Chris King to write new Blakes 7 episodes!! :D

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OK Google, what's the closing time of nearest supermarket?

Well it worked first time for me. Correctly.

Which is more than I can say for the Americans I've met who couldn't understand my British (Liverpool but locals ask me where I'm from) accent.

"Excuse me, could you tell me where the bathroom is?" Blank look on American face.

(With phoney American accent) "Excuse me, could you tell me where the bathroom is?" "Oh yeah! Over on your left."

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Re: @ Lee D

"I can generally type faster than I talk".

I wish I could!

A quick google tells me that "The accepted average typing speed is 41 WPM (words per minute), and professional career typists can exceed 100 WPM"

Also: "..average American English speaker engaged in a friendly conversation speaks at a rate of approximately 110–150 wpm."

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Re: @ Lee D

I can't even get "OK Google" to function, though I admit my accent is a little screwed (I'm from Yorkshire, so it's quite deep, but was mainly raised by my Irish nan, so picked up talking at speed, which is fine if you're a high pitched Irish person, but not if you're low pitched Yorkshiremen).

Why am I now imagining Compo from "Last of the Summer Wine" walking up to one of these things and saying "ey'oop Google !" ?

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Re: "CONFIRM"

Isn't a chimp some kind of monkey?

I think you've just insulted The Librarian. Better run.

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LDS
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Joke

All we need is a little communicator carried on the chest which you can activate by touching it...

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LDS
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"Given that an 80's TV sci-fi scriptwriter can get it right"

They didn't have the biggest reseller of the planet telling them how a computer system should sell, ehm, work...

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You are wrong on "cannot distinguish users"... You never had a parrot then?

We had an African Grey parrot that could mimic everyone in the house to a T and it would have the dogs excitedly milling around the front door with "come on girls, walkies" several times a day. If the dogs couldn't work out it was the bird and not one of us then I doubt that Alexa could either.

My sister gave me an Echo for Christmas and after reading the leaflet I politely suggested she return it as I did not want a spying device in the house. She then asked me to see if my daughter would like it. Daughter's answer was "Ah... hell no! But say it nicely."

The since deceased parrot's worst trick was to respond to a cough with a rolling medley of my parents', sister's and my morning smokers coughs. It got even more gut wrenching after my grandfather spent two months with us while dying of lung cancer and the bird adding his cough to the medley.

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@Lars

Why not both?

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