Alexa, Police and Privacy

It was reported in the media that a woman’s life was possibly saved by an Amazon Echo device placing a 911 call. During a dispute that turned violent with her boyfriend he allegedly said “Did you call the cops?” which the device interpreted as an instruction and placed the call. This story may sound convincing, but is also false. As explained in various articles on CNET, Wired, NY Times and other places, an Amazon Echo device cannot activated with the words “Did you” and more crucially cannot place a 911 call.

The idea however is out there. Both the Wired article, as well as a Chief Seattle Geek blog post explore the potential benefits of Alexa being able to call emergency services. This can be done intentionally after being instructed, “Alexa, call 999!”, or on the devices own initiative when it detects smoke from a smoke detector, hears gunshots or senses burglars.

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Academic Research for Sale

It was reported in the press this week, first by the Wall Street Journal, that Google has been paying money to academics at US and UK universities in exchange for research aligned with Google’s policy interests. The reporting is based in part on a report, compiled by the Campaign for Accountability, and was picked up by major newspapers. As expected, Google is rejecting the claims and as reported in Wired it seems that the report could have been compiled more carefully.

The facts however remain. Researchers have taken money from Google—in the form of fellowships and research grants—and then written academic papers expressing views favourable to Google partially without acknowledging Google’s financial contributions. After the dust settles we will be left with two questions:

  1. What is the damage?
  2. Who is to blame?

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Quo Vadis?

This post is not aimed at justifying this blog’s existence to the reader. In this day and age uninterested readers will simply stop reading and wander off to other blogs. Instead, this post is aimed at reminding my future self why I started to write this blog in the first place.

The world is becoming more and more mathematical. Behind expressions like big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning and data science lurks mathematics. The big five companies—Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—rely on advanced algorithms in their day-to-day operations and so do countless others. Every day our lives are shaped by mathematics, often operating behind the scenes.

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