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Privacy and the Promise of Voice Recognition

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By Jack Cumming

The surprisingly rapid acceptance by the very old of the Amazon Echo technology and the copycats it has spawned may finally be the magic bullet that brings digitization into senior housing. One can imagine nurses enabled to voice-document delivery of care services; remote workers able to document performance; and residents empowered to request meals, etc. No one would mourn the demise of paper forms, reports, and the file cabinets to contain them. But like any advance, this one comes with drawbacks. One such challenge is likely to go away with time. The Amazon devices require a Smartphone to set up. Either Amazon will change that themselves, or competitors will leapfrog what Amazon has started.

Invasion of Privacy

The privacy challenge is more perplexing. Already people fear that voice recognition devices can be used to spy on them in their own homes. A year ago, investigators in a criminal case in Arkansas demanded information from Amazon to help solve a murder case. Amazon has tried to reassure people that the device only "listens" when it hears the “wake” word and that it stops listening once the request is fulfilled. Still, many members of the public remain skeptical.

Privacy takes on an added dimension in a senior housing setting. Independent living residents are jealous of their privacy just like most people. That can all change, though, when affliction strikes leaving a resident vulnerable to immobility. Vulnerable residents happily give up privacy for the comfort of knowing that someone is checking on them and that they won’t be forgotten or overlooked in their hour of need.

“Drop in Anytime”

That’s where the Amazon Echo Show (and, presumably, the Echo Spot) has a fascinating capability which so far has not drawn much attention. With its video screen, the Echo Show enables simple video calling. For instance, I can simply say, “Alexa, call Ron Whalin,” and I can connect with my friends Ron and Bert Whalin at Fellowship Village in Basking Ridge, NJ. That’s impressive. The Echo Show, though, goes further if both parties enable the skill on their devices. I can also say, “Alexa, drop in on Ron Whalin,” and here’s where it gets interesting.

With the Echo Show’s “drop in” feature, Amazon connects my Echo Show to the one in the Whalin's living room whether they’re home or not. That bears repeating. “Drop in” allows connection to another Echo Show, far across the country, even if the owners are not there. At first, “drop in” seems a little creepy. When people hear about it, they quickly ask why that isn’t an invasion of privacy. “Drop in” is only available while both parties enable it.

Recently, I took advantage of my friendship with the Whalin's to demonstrate the feature to friends. First, I tried calling, but there was no answer. Since I knew that their Echo Show was in a neutral area of their living room, I used the drop-in feature to demonstrate the ready connectivity. We got a beautiful view of their Christmas tree, but we kept it short so as not to pry.  

“Drop in Anywhere”

Much to my surprise, though, Ron Whalin quickly called back, and it was evident from the picture that he was in the Fellowship Village Bistro having supper with friends. I couldn’t imagine that he had taken the Echo Show to dinner, and he hadn’t. It turned out that he saw on his Smartphone that I had called, and he was able to replicate the Echo Show calling feature from his Smartphone. I couldn’t help but reflect that we’ve entered the age of instant video connectivity everywhere, all the time.

Truth to tell, Amazon is sensitive to the privacy issue. No one wants to be caught suddenly scratching. So, Amazon blurs the initial feed, and the picture only clarifies slowly after a sufficient time to allow the person dropped in on to adjust clothing and to put on a smile. Of course, it’s best not to allow the drop-in feature in the intimate areas of the house. With a few exceptions, it’s best in living rooms or offices and not in bedrooms or bathrooms. That’s obvious.

Privacy Exceptions

The beauty of the feature, though, comes in once people enter the frailty stage of life. Then, the priority shifts from the natural human desire for privacy toward fear of abandonment in a time of need. Recently, this came up after an incident with friends made clear that they could no longer look after themselves. The children were naturally concerned for Mom and Dad. In this case, which is not uncommon, the couple who had sustained each other suddenly were both in a situation needing greater care and concern. Both parents and children were delighted to be able to put an Amazon Echo Show in a strategic location in their parents’ CCRC apartment so the children could check in regularly. That simple change brought calm and heightened peace-of-mind to everyone in the family. Sometimes setting privacy concerns aside is the better course.

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