The Register has an amusing story about a local TV station whose story about Alexa sparked a distributed purchasing spree. In reporting on a six-year-old who accidentally prompted her parents’ Amazon Echo to order a $160 dollhouse, a news presenter spoke aloud the phrase “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse.”
The TV station subsequently received a number of complaints from viewers whose Alexa-powered gadgets heard the broadcast and subsequently attempted to order them dollhouses. As the article notes, Alexa devices have voice purchasing enabled by default. When combined with Amazon’s 1-click order settings, this can be a recipe for some accidental shopping.
I’m a bit surprised I’ve never heard about this problem popping up before. If Amazon’s gadgets are sensitive enough to obey voice commands from anyone, that ought to be a problem any time some character in a TV show gives Alexa a spoken instruction. In any event, giving a voice-recognition box the power to place Amazon orders by default seems like opening a can of worms. Apart from TV shows, it means any houseguest could play havoc with your Amazon account just by making free with the word “Alexa.” You can set Alexa to require a 4-digit code, which will be great for preventing accidents—but anyone who’s around when you make an order will hear that code the first time you give it.
It puts me in mind of the old story I once heard about someone’s demonstration of voice command prompts for a computer, in which a member of the audience yelled out “Format C colon!” Probably apocryphal, but a great demonstration of the problem with setting a computer to do whatever anyone tells it to.