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6-year-old wanted to play house. Amazon’s Alexa sent her a playhouse.

Be careful what you say in front of your Amazon Echo or Google Home; they’re always listening.
Be careful what you say in front of your Amazon Echo or Google Home; they’re always listening. .

It’s going to take me awhile to get used to computers that never stop listening to what I do. The other morning I was happily driving along listening to a track from Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album when I realized the clock in my car wasn’t set right. Just to see if it would work with my phone buried deep in my pocket, I called out the query “OK Google, what time is it?”

Back came a muffled reply: “The time is 7:48 AM.”

Our devices are starting to do this, listening rather than waiting for a button press or other hardware action. You already know that this runs beyond smartphones if you have an Amazon Echo or Google Home, which both allow you to run any number of actions by voice command alone. “Alexa, play Miles Davis” works any time I want to hear more of the master’s work, but that means Alexa always has her ear to the ground, waiting for the activating phrase.

This can get weird, comic and even deeply irritating. Earlier this year, the Amazon Echo so enthralled a 6-year old child named Brooke Neitzel that she asked it to play dollhouse with her, and along the way, get her a new dollhouse. You can imagine what happened next, with the dollhouse arriving from Amazon along with, somehow, four pounds of sugar cookies.

A CBS affiliate in Dallas reported that after Alexa confirmed her order, Brooke burst into a spontaneous “I love you so much!” – a fact confirmed by the app itself, the tracing of its actions being a sudden priority for her parents. Soon they had installed a code to prevent unauthorized purchases, something that is easy to do if you know you need to do it in the first place.

Google clearly wants to avoid the problem. It’s introducing multi-user support for Google Home, which means that the smart home device will be able to figure out who is talking to it. Soon, concerned parents will be able to establish guidelines for family members based upon voice alone, with some privileges being granted to the adults, others to the kids.

Need to know what’s on your calendar? When this is implemented, Google Home can give you your appointments but dole out an entirely different set to your spouse, a personalization feature that will give Google Home a step up over the Amazon alternative. I would have to assume that Amazon will get a similar feature working in short order.

You can see where this is going. Google lives by ads – in fact, its AdSense division alone made a cool $22 billion in the last quarter of 2016. Personalizing its user base means more opportunity to fine-tune ads based upon individual preferences. The idea also works toward making the smart home device concept more palatable to people who may be skeptical. The more useful a device is in a highly targeted way, the less likely it is to seem frivolous.

Along the way, what a set of bumps, though. Thus Burger King had the bright idea to run a television ad in which the burger-wielding protagonist leaned into the camera and said “OK Google, what is a Whopper burger?” Boom – Google Homes across the land, hearing the request, read out the first line of the Wikipedia entry on the Whopper, which had evidently been edited for maximum effect.

Guess what happened? Other people starting editing the Whopper entry – you can do this on Wikipedia – and some of the changes were less than kind toward Burger King. Google quickly stopped Home from responding to the Whopper challenge, and the Wikipedia page became locked. Who knows what’s next?

Back to the dollhouse story. In San Diego, a TV story about it triggered some viewers’ Echo devices to place orders for more dollhouses. The moral of the tale: Study the settings on your home device and learn how to tweak them before sugar cookies show up at your door.

PS: Amazon says that accidental orders can be returned for free. But fix your settings anyway.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at pag1877@gmail.com.

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