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Our phones are listening!

Chief Digital officer

Siri, Alexa, Google Home and other devices have been answering questions at your beck and call for years; but have you ever wondered how they are able to answer you and if they’re listening to all your conversations?

Firewater’s resident tech-guru and chief digital officer, Alon Berman, answered these burning questions about virtual assistants and the artificial intelligence behind the tools, on Chai FM with Charisse Zeifert from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

While many of us make use of virtual assistants on a daily basis (like calling on them to resolve trivial office debates) very few of us have considered how these tools work, beyond forming the opinion that they’re either useful to us or harmful to our security. Berman indicated that the technology used here, to ‘listen’ to what you say, is not new. “The device, whether it’s your phone or the new speakers [Google Home, Alexa etc.]; essentially what that is, is a voice input device. It listens to what you have to say and then translates it into text. This is not new; we’ve been using things like Dragon Dictate for many years.”

This technology has allowed companies to listen in on the content you’re watching on TV and the adverts that you see and send this data back in the form of a consumer report – but Berman explained that there has been much progress since then. “The magic is now happening more in artificial intelligence – or AI – where these companies are now taking that data and not just taking the words you’ve said and turning that into readable text. They are actually trying to contextually understand what you’re trying to say.”

As the artificial intelligence has improved, so the answers have improved too – which has even allowed the AI tools to put your words into context! With AI embedded in your phone, you can now start integrating this functionality with various apps that you have, which is what enables us to ask our virtual assistants to provide us with a weather update, navigate our journey home or even “call dad” from your contact list, as Berman exhibited.

“There’s [also the] physical safety [aspect]. I get in my car, put my phone in its cradle and say, ‘Take me home,’ and there are the directions. It certainly helps you keep your hands off your phone.”

Now, with constant learning and adaptation through human intervention, AI is at a point where bots can perform tasks on your behalf and even imitate natural language by using interjections like “uhm” when contemplating decisions. Berman explained that “When you need to book a haircut, your Google assistant will phone the hairdresser and have a conversation then start negotiating times, and they wouldn’t even realise that they’re talking to a bot.” 

Though this technology has proven to be helpful to us, concerns arise where most people are worried that their devices are always listening – which are valid concerns, because they are! These devices are listening out for your trigger word or “wake word”, so they must always be on. Berman offered the only advice that would give you complete solitude from companies listening in on your devices: “Switching your phone off is probably the best thing if you don’t want anyone to listen to anything.”