Tag Archives: amazon echo

When Alexa Calls 911 …

alexa-call-911CES, 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?

ng911-2020Alexa 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.

2017 CES - Ford offers Amazon AlexaThere 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.

911-center-seattleThe 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).

Privacy, Hacking

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.

Conclusion

“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.

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Filed under 911, Alexa, APCO, Internet of Things, ng911

Echo, Public Safety, FirstNet

Amazon's Echo

Amazon’s Echo

I recently attended and spoke at the Government Technology Beyond-the-Beltway event.  Our panel of local and state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) was asked “what is the most significant technology advance in your lifetime”.   I answered “either the IBM PC or the iPhone”.  Others mentioned the Internet and the world-wide-web.   (No one mentioned the development of email, invented by Ray Tomlinson, who just recently passed away, and sometimes considered the bane of our existence.)

A more significant question might be “what will be the most significant technology advance in the near future”.   Or, to narrow it a bit, what will be the most significant technology advance for public safety first responders in the near future?

I’m convinced such technologies already exist, or, in the words of William Gibson:  “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet”.

One of the candidates is Amazon’s Echo.

Echo is a speech-enabled technology which is arguably better than Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana and which can be used right now in homes to do everything from order more laundry detergent to play music to control the thermostat. All by recognizing speech.  And connecting to Amazon’s website, of course.

We hire and extensively train police officers, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics as first responders. Then, because we want to be “data driven”, we tell them to sit down at computers and type crime reports, hand-write medical reports, prepare fire code inspections and do what are essentially clerical tasks which take them away from the real work of law enforcement and fire protection.

Enter Echo.

Why don’t we have Echo-like devices in police vehicles and fire apparatus and even in police officer badges or firefighter helmets?

star-trek-comm-badge

Comm Badge

Can you imagine a cop who comes to your house to investigate a burglary, taps her badge (just like the CommBadge in Star Trek) and asks “Alexa, have any red Schwinn bicycles been recovered lately?” or “Alexa, search all nearby pawn shops for Canon EOS rebel single-lens reflex cameras sold in the last three days”.

Or the traffic officer who goes to his police car and simply speaks to the car “Car 54 take a collision report for two vehicles who collided at this intersection twenty-two minutes ago,” then proceeds to dictate the report to the car.  And the Echo-like device in the car prompts the officer for any additional information, even doing database searches returning information like “Officer Schrier, I detect that the red Ford Mustang involved in this collision has fourteen unpaid parking tickets.  Shall I call for a tow truck?”

Similarly paramedics responding to an emergency medical call could talk to their devices “Alexa, get me the detailed health records for William M. Schrier, apparent heart attack victim, specifically including any known medications he is using and any known adverse reactions to meds”.  Or “Call Schrier’s personal physician at the highest priority, locating the doctor immediately for this emergency.” And that same paramedic could dictate observations and reports, rather than hand-writing them or typing them.

language-translation-software-image

Language Translation

Another significant use for speech-activated devices are language translation.   We are a nation of immigrants, and real-time translation services like Google translate or Skype.

Although most police cars are equipped with mobile data computers today, many police officers are justifiably skeptical of writing reports in their vehicles, especially if it means looking down at a screen and a keyboard, and not paying attention to their surroundings.   Killing of police officers like those in New York City, Houston/Harris County, and Lakewood (Washington) have reinforced this fear.  But with speech-to-text such as Echo, officers might be able to spend more time on the street, less time at computers in the police station.

Even in daily situations, police officers who need to tap or type on their in-car computer while driving represent a potential hazard to themselves and others.  Being able to give verbal commands such as “acknowledge that dispatch and set status to en route” or “text Sergeant Schrier that I’ll be following up immediately” improve not only speed but also safety for officers.

Echo and similar technologies do, however, require high speed Internet access.

FirstNet-logo-vertical

FirstNet

For first responders working in the field, that means 4G LTE networks.   The First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”) is planning to build just such a network, specifically designed for first responders.  FirstNet will, perhaps, have applications, apps and devices specifically tailored for first responder missions.  FirstNet recognized the importance of such voice technologies in a blog post here.

Even more importantly, public safety software vendors of computer-aided dispatch systems (CAD) and fire/police records management systems (RMS) should immediately start integrating speech-to-text technologies into their products.   A speech-enabled RMS will significantly reduce the time for a paramedic, law enforcement officer or firefighter to create reports.  Such reports will be more accurate and of higher quality, and first responders will spend more time on the streets and less time typing in front of a computer.

Echo or similar speech-to-command technologies should be high on FirstNet’s list.  And on the list of any company creating software for first responders.

 

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Filed under emergency operations, eRepublic, firefighting, FirstNet, future of technology, Law Enforcement