Speech Technology Magazine

Be Careful What You Wish For

When it comes to our privacy, how far will technology go?
By Moshe Yudkowsky - Posted Sep 10, 2012
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I think I may have ended up in the wrong future.

Twenty years ago, all the high-tech equipment I had operated in an isolated manner—my computer, cell phone, and PDA each had its own address books, files, and appointment calendars. Wouldn't it be nice to have them all synchronized? And wouldn't it be amusing when everyone starts squabbling over who owns your address book?

Today, I synchronize my address book between my phone, my laptop, and my tablet,but I don't really own any of those devices. 

• When I update my laptop's Apple OS, Apple reaches into my computer and resets my defaults. When I click on links, instead of opening Firefox, I'm rerouted to Apple's Safari; when I open a document, instead of running NeoOffice, I end up in Apple's Pages application.

• My phone comes with "Amazon MP3" as one of the apps, and even though I won't ever use it, I can't delete it.

• My tablet started making funny noises while sitting on my desk; apparently a few apps had updated themselves, decided that their default was to run as soon as I turned on the tablet, and had been sitting there intercepting my messages and lying to my friends about whether or not I was online.

• It's almost impossible to purchase decent camping gear that doesn't prominently display a corporate logo.

Let's discuss that last point a bit. You won't ever catch me wearing a T-shirt with a corporate logo. I'm a person, not a billboard. I avoid certain hiking and camping gear because of the logos prominently displayed.

Now imagine how I feel about my cell phone and my tablet computer. Every app wants to spy on your location and contacts—don't-be-evil Google requires you to have a Google account to use an Android phone; I shudder to think of what Apple does with your information if you use an iPhone.

This is the future predicted by science fiction authors such as Pat Cadigan—the one in which corporations control the data that describes you to businesses and to the world at large. As much as I like Cadigan's work, I was hoping for one of the futures of hyperindividualism and self-reliance predicted by Robert Heinlein or, even better, a Robert Sheckley future (I could use a good laugh).

The speech technology future that I live in comes in three parts. The technical future is amazing. Telephony ASR recognizes phone numbers, credit card numbers, even vague phrases. I use ASR on my phone to create text messages and do searches, and I'm astonished by the accuracy.

Second is the financial future. The future I live in is, I'm afraid, just what I expected it to be. Marketing always predicts runaway revenue starting three years from today, whenever "today" is.... I would have preferred the future where I lived in a mansion, but I'll manage somehow.

Finally, there's the social future: how technology affects society. I don't have any insight into the current state of affairs in the black side of our business; intelligence agencies have better ASR and more powerful computers, but a lot more input to process on many more channels, so who knows if they can really keep up. Speech biometric databases still rely heavily on voluntary enrollment. We have not seen (or at least not heard about) police spy microphones to monitor speech to go along with the police spy cameras infesting major cities.

But I see glimmers of a coming speech-recognition dystopia, even on my phone and tablet. Nuance's Swype is a terrific bit of keyboard technology, and its dictation software is impressive; its privacy policy reads very well and it collects only anonymized data.

What happens when someone flips that switch? What happens if Facebook integrates speech technology with its platform? Will Facebook find a way to automatically tag your voicemail messages, your YouTube narratives, your comments during a conference session? I would fear such speech recognition. Ordinary apps took only a short time to slide from innocent data collection into full-blown data mining for marketing research. Will speech recognition follow?  ? 

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