CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, recently concluded in Las Vegas. Alexa conquered the show (Wired), and seemed to be everywhere (Fast Company). Alexa is, of course, the voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon, headquartered in Seattle.
Alexa has a long and growing list of commands ranging from “Alexa Shut Up” to “Alexa Give me a Game of Thrones Quote” to skills commands like “Alexa Ask Lyft for a Ride” which enables a specific skill written by Lyft to engage their car-sharing service.
Alexa is being married with a new generation of “smart devices”. So if your light bulbs are smart enough, Alexa can control them (“Alexa, turn off the lights in the bedroom”). If your garage door is smart enough, Alexa can open it. Audio equipment. Smart phones. Even cars (Ford is building Alexa into its vehicles) will have Alexa controls. Indeed, Shelly Palmer, a long-time observer of CES, says “anything which can be connected, will be connected” to Alexa.
But what happens when you say “Alexa, call 911”?
Right now, of course, nothing. Alexa cannot use the telephone, or make a phone call. But, it can – and does – send data and your voice across the Internet to the Amazon cloud. And, as Amazon develops Alexa’s expertise, it is only a matter of time until such a “call 911” skill is built.
The Bright Side of Alexa 911 Calls
Anyone who has been a victim of a crime understands the potential for using Alexa to call 911. Someone breaks into your house, and you fumble to find a phone and fumble to unlock it and then punch in 911. But Alexa is “always on, always listening”. You simply say “Alexa, call 911”.
But then what happens? Does Alexa “keep the line open” so you can talk to the 911 operator? What if you have to leave the room or get out of Alexa’s range as you retreat into a closet or try to find the burglar? Should an individual Alexa device in one room automatically activate all the other Alexa devices (Echo, Dot, Tap, Firestick etc.) everywhere in the house and put them on the line with the 911 operator?
Alexa will soon be able to control video cameras and audio devices throughout the house. Should “Alexa call 911” automatically activate all such devices? Should it connect them to digital recorders or maybe automatically connect them all to the 911 center so the operator can hear and see what is going on? (Of course 911 centers can’t receive video right now, but with Next Generation 911 that capability will become available, eventually.)
FirstNet will be deploying a nationwide cellular network for first responders and their smart phones, mobile and tablet computers. With FirstNet, responding officers could actually connect, as they are responding, with such inputs – video cameras and Alexa devices, so officers could hear and see what is happening inside the house.
There will also be Alexa-enabled vehicles. Could an Alexa-enabled vehicle become somewhat “self aware”, so it might detect that it is being hotwired – that its owner is not present, and call 911 to alert police of the crime-in progress? Or perhaps the car would detect that its windows are being broken, activate tiny video cameras around the car, and also, with Alexa, alert the 911 center to that car prowl in progress.
But some 911 emergencies are not crimes, but a fire. The urgency of a quick connection to 911 is underscored in a fire, as people need to call 911 and get out of the premise quickly. Alexa-capable devices will eventually connect to fire alarms and sensors in the house. Perhaps, eventually, people will also have sensors in their clothes so Alexa could also precisely locate people inside a house. These devices will eventually have GPS beacons so their locations are precisely known. All of this information could be available to responding firefighters so they could see the location of the fire and potentially the location of every human being and pet inside the home, invaluable information for saving lives in the first few seconds after firefighters arrive.
Many 911 calls are medical emergencies – diabetic shock or a heart attack or a stroke or a fall. Again, Alexa will be invaluable in summoning aid. An elderly neighbor of ours recently fell out of bed and shattered her femur. She slowly, painfully, crawled to a phone to call us (and we called 911). But with Alexa, all she would have to say is “Alexa, call 911” and she’d be immediately connected to aid.
Again, biosensors are being embedded in humans today and this trend will continue. Heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors are all devices we attach to our bodies to monitor our health. These devices could eventually be controlled by Alexa, or at least send information to Alexa, which would establish a history and pattern which could be invaluable to the paramedic responding to 911 calls. With “Alexa call 911” plus FirstNet all of that information could be sent to emergency medical technicians and emergency room physicians at hospitals before the Medic unit even leaves the station.
In fact, the potential for such live-saving applications could, eventually, lead to a mandate that all voice-activated digital assistants in a home must have the capability to call 911 just as today every cell phone – even if you haven’t paid the bill in years – are mandated to connect 911 calls to a public safety answering point.
The Dark Side of Alexa 911 Calls
Just as Alexa’s potential for saving lives and solving crimes through 911 calling is the “bright side”, there is also a “dark side” of enabling this capability.
The most immediate effect will be on understaffed 911 centers. The sheer number of 911 calls will rise. The quality of the calls may also drop as people try to talk to their voice enabled devices as they move from room-to-room, making it hard for 911 operators to hear and interact with the caller. In fact, many Alexa-based 911 calls may become the equivalent of a “911 hang up” call today, where officers are dispatched out of concern that domestic violence or another crime is occurring and the caller is unable to reconnect with the 911 center.
In addition, Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) may become overloaded with data during these calls. Security companies, certainly, will rush to develop Alexa-enabled products. These could be video cameras placed around the home, coupled with movement sensors, heat/fire sensors, door and window sensors (to determine if a door/window is open or shattered), and so forth. Such a system would allow a homeowner to know the status of her home at any time or place. But all of this data could also be transmitted to a 911 center or (via FirstNet) to responders as they are en route. With the advent of inexpensive video cameras, the sheer amount of data (multiple video feeds, for example) would easily overwhelm a 911 center or responders.
(Note: 911 centers presently only receive voice phone calls, although an increasing number call also receive text messages. Very few can receive photos, images, video and similar information from 911 callers).
Today there is significant concern about the amount of data and information collected about individuals today through their use of the Internet and social media. The advent of voice-activated digital assistants and homes of sensors increases those concerns. Shelly Palmer has written “How Dangerous is Alexa”, an exploration of the potential for these devices to collect vast amount of information about us simply by listening in the background, as well as by the control of our other smart devices.
Beyond the data collection is the potential for hacking these digital assistants – or the smart devices they control. The Mirai Botnet incident of September, 2016, clearly demonstrated the power of such hacking. We can imagine many frightening scenarios, such as criminals hacking into a home’s smart devices and directing them to open all the doors and windows to simplify a burglary. Worse yet, a criminal syndicate or a hostile nation state might direct all the Alexas (or other digital assistants) in a city or state to “call 911” overwhelming first responders and throwing a nation into chaos.
“Alexa, Call Nine One One”. Five simple words which carry such power, such potential for improving public safety, solving crimes and rushing aid to victims of fires and health emergencies. Five simple words which raise numerous issues about the staffing preparedness of our 911 centers and public policy which our elected leaders will need to address.