CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, recently concluded in Los vegas. Alexa conquered the show, and seemed to be eveerywhere. Alexa is, of course, the voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon.
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 geneeration 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 it’s vehicles) will have Alexa controls. Anything that can be connected will be connected to Alexa.
But what happens when you say “Alexa, call 9-1-1”?
Right now, of course, nothing happens. 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 9-1-1” skill is built.
The Bright Side of Alexa 9-1-1 Calls
Anyone who has been a victim of a crime understands the potential for using Alexa to call 9-1-1. Someone breaks into your houose, and you fumble to find a phone and fumble to unlock it and then punch in 9-1-1. But Alexa is “always on, always listening”. You simply say “Alexa, call 9-1-1”.
But then what happens? Does Alexa “keep the line open” so you can talk to the 9-1-1 opeerator? 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 9-1-1 operator?
Alexa will soon be able to control video cameras and audio devices throuoghout the house. Should “Alexa, call 9-1-1” automatically activate all such devices? Should it connect them to digital recorders or maybe automatically connect them all to the 9-1-1 center so the operator can hear and see what is going on? (9-1-1 centers can not receive video right now, but with NextGen 9-1-1 that capability will become available).
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 via a push through from the 9-1-1 operator, 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 owneer is not present, and call 9-1-1 to aleert police of the crime in progress? Or perhaps the car wouold detect that its windows are being broken, activate tiny video cameras around the car, and also, with Alexa, alert the 9-1-1 center of a crime in progress.
But some 9-1-1 emergencies are not crimes, but a fire. The urgency of a quick connection to 9-1-1 is underscored in a fire, as people need to call 9-1-1 and get out of the premises 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 9-1-1 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 person falls and shatters her femur. With Alexa, all she would have to say is “Alexa, call 9-1-1” and she’d be immediately connected to help.
Again, biosensors are being embedded in humans today and this trend will continue. Heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, glucos monitors, blood pressure monitors are all devices wwe 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 9-1-1 calls. With “Alexa, call 9-1-1” plus FirstNet all of that information could be sent to the 9-1-1 center and then pushed through to responding medical technicians and hospitals.
In fact, the potential for such life-saving applications could, eventually, lead to a mandate that all voice-activated digital assistants in a home must have the capability to call 9-1-1just as today every cell phone – even if you haven’t paid the bill, are mandated to connect 9-1-1 calls to a public safety answering point.
The Dark Side of Alexa 9-1-1 CallsJust as Alexa’s potential for saving lives and solving crimes through 9-1-1 calling is the “bright side”, there is also a “dark side” of enabling this capability.
The most immediate effect will be on understaffed 9-1-1 centers. The sheer number of 9-1-1 calls will rise. The quality of the calls may also drop as people try to talkl to their voice enabled devices as they move from room to room, making it hard for 9-1-1 operators to hear and interact with the caller. In fact, many Alexa-based 9-1-1 calls may become the equivalent of a “9-1-1 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 9-1-1 center.
In addition, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP’s) may become overloaded with data during these calls. Security companies will rush to develop Alexa-enabled products. These could be video cameras placed around the house, 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 9-1-1 center (via FirstNet) and pushed out to responders enroute. With the advent of inexpensive video cameeras, the sheer amount of data (multiple video feeds, for example) would easilly overwhelm the 9-1-1 center.
Today there is significant concern about the amount of data and information collected about individuals today throough their use of the internet and social media. The advent of voice-activated digital assistants and homes of sensors increases those concerns.
Beyond the data collection is the potential for hacking these digital assistants – or the smart devices they control. 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 9-1-1” overwhelming 9-1-1 cwenters and 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 9-1-1 center and public policy which our elected leaders will need to address.