18 Nov 2016

The Race to Control Your Home: Artificial Intelligence is Here

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Even as early adopters today are already speaking with their household appliances, lighting systems, home security network, and computing devices through cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) enabled systems, one question comes to mind. Which AI system will lead the way to eventual mass market adoption: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s homeKit, Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant, or perhaps the recently announced Google Assistant? Each system offers a fast-growing dose of cloud-enabled artificial intelligence in an interactive format, allowing it to serve as a personal assistant, butler, and perhaps in the future, companion.

So, what exactly can a cloud-enabled butler do? Alexa (an Amazon service) started as a voice control application for a line of Alexa-enabled speakers. Voice commands can ask Alexa to play music, read the news or set an alarm. These may seem like novelty use cases, sure.

But as you consider how quickly the technology is evolving, with smart network-enabled integrations being designed with every household device or appliance imaginable (a trend called “The Internet of Things”), a wide spectrum of possibilities emerges. For example, you may soon see your Samsung refrigerator automatically reorder food that is running low, using in-fridge cameras that “speak” to Amazon Alexa. Amazon doesn’t just want to control how customers turn off their lights and when they set their alarm — Amazon wants to buy for you, offering you supreme convenience you’ll prefer to a traditional restocking trip to Walmart, for example. Alexa is already able to order thousands of eligible products at Amazon.com by voice command, and this will surely be a huge growth emphasis for the Seattle-based ecommerce giant. Why? Because Amazon can then reduce or eliminate your brand preferences and perhaps sell merchandising opportunities to the highest bidding consumer brands. This is the ultimate in controlling commerce.

Consider the following scenario, set in the near futureYour alarm clock (that Alexa set for you) goes off, alerting you (and Alexa) that your day has begun. Because it is a cold wintery morning, Alexa automatically instructs your shower to turn on, so it is warm and inviting by the time you’ve undressed. When you enter the shower, Alexa instructs the coffee machine to begin brewing your morning coffee. When the coffee is brewed and the coffee beans are running low, Alexa automatically orders a new bag of your favorite beans, which is promptly loaded onto an automatically piloted Amazon drone, to be delivered to your porch that very afternoon. As you approach the front door to leave your house, Alexa hails an Uber driver (or driverless car) to your location. (To where? Not the shopping mall of course; Alexa’s got all your shopping taken care of.)

Does this glimpse of the future tickle your fancy? It’s really not that far away, and there’s still plenty more to come.

Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri are also quickly evolving. Your interactions with Cortana and Siri on your computing devices feed their cloud-based “intelligence,” improving each AI helper’s ability to meet your needs in the future. Today, Microsoft’s Cortana operates as a personal assistant for PCs and mobile devices and is integrated into Windows 10, allowing users to perform web searches, schedule appointments, control their devices and more, using voice. Cortana also integrates with a variety of home devices allowing consumers to speak commands for lighting, heat and air devices. Apple’s Home app lets users control HomeKit-compatible accessories from an IOS device or voice commands through Siri. Smart accessories include locks, shades, thermostats and lighting.

These AI-enabled systems can offer huge time savings and convenience. But just how secure are these systems, and where is the data being processed and stored? Are your personal conversations secretly recorded and analyzed, either for marketing or for national security purposes? Could a criminal monitor your home activities or even shut down your security system? The FBI reports that we are just at the beginning of hackers taking control of home-connected appliances — the first step was to use them to relay data for denial of service attacks — in the future, if there is a financial benefit to targeting an individual, they may be able to make things “happen” inside your home – whether you are at home or not. Forget Ghostbusters II; this could be a far scarier plot.

A hacker accessing your home network, or data from your home network stored on a third party server, could also access your PC or mobile devices from which you control your home network. The opportunity for risk is endless. Hackers can use stolen data to commit identity theft or to plan a robbery. They can also blackmail you with privileged and personal information your AI helper gleans from your confidential conversations at home. They may record your private conversations and watch you through any or all of the dozens of cameras throughout your home (on your phone, laptop, gaming devices, cable box, etc.)

There are already numerous examples of home automation/AI vulnerabilities being exploited. Researchers at the University of Michigan successfully hacked into a leading home automation system, identifying a security flaw that allowed them to obtain the security code to a home’s front door. Apple’s Siri allowed a neighbor to unlock a front door, simply by shouting, “Hey Siri, unlock the front door.” On October 21, 2016, hackers “weaponized” everyday devices including webcams and DVRs, devices connected to the Internet. Botnets infected these devices with malware and then used them to shut down online servers. (Many of these devices have default passwords and are easy to hack.)

With the inevitable adoption of these AI-enabled home automation and personal assistant systems, it will be important for consumers to be proactive about understanding the security risks and best practices for living with an omniscient, always listening, presence in their living space.