Alexa, what do you mean you can't call 911?
Earlier this month the Internet was abuzz with a story about whether or not an Amazon Echo called the police to report a domestic assault. It turned out to be a slight aberration. Amazon stated unequivocally that its Echo device was unable to place an emergency call and that they did not understand how it had happened. Whether or not the Echo called 911 itself is irrelevant, the question is why is it not a crucial feature of all smart devices?
Our homes, much like our cars, watches, and clothes, are getting smarter and smarter every single day. Devices like the Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s Siri are integrating more and more into our everyday life and devices. The relatively low price of these devices, the Google Home is only $129 and is becoming an impulse purchase at a Best Buy, means that it is now accessible to low and middle-class buyers. Just plugging a Google Home into your apartment means that you’ve automatically future-proofed your living space to accept all sorts of connected devices. From there, simply saying “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Alexa” can trigger a wi-fi light switch or answer whatever question pops into your head.
But, if we have an all-listening device that can control our homes or settle arguments about trivia then why can’t it contact emergency services when we’re in need of help?
While Amazon does not allow native calling in their Echo system, they are implementing IP calling with their new Echo Show. Similarly, Google is adding IP calling in a feature update for their Home device. Apple, when they announced their upcoming ‘HomePod’ speaker system earlier this year, said that it would include their digital assistant, Siri. Today, Siri CAN call 911 from your phone, but it’s not known if that particular feature will make it into the HomePod when it is unveiled. Trying to use Siri on your computer to call 911 results in the virtual assistant telling you to make the emergency call on your phone.
But why is this important? Why are we sitting here wondering if our omnipotent, ever-listening assistant can contact emergency services? Because this is a service that will save lives. The domestic abuse case in Albuquerque is proof that we have an always-on connection to first responders. Imagine, if the situation had escalated and the final words that the poor woman heard were “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
Device manufacturers have often pointed to a few incidents that have led to assistants such as Siri calling 911. Utilizing trigger words such as “Hey, Siri” and then “call the police” has led to dispatchers being inundated with hundreds of thousands of false calls. A ‘prank’ running wild across social media recently was to say “Hey, Siri, 108” and the voice assistant would then call emergency services. Apple has since quashed that bug.
Having a direct line from a voice assistant, or connected device such as a smoke detector, to 911 would greatly help seniors and those who have a disability. Today, many seniors live with a wearable device on their wrist or around their neck that they can push if they happen to fall down the stairs. One of the complaints with this sort of wearable is that they often take these wearables off when bathing and forget to put them back on. Having a smart assistant in various rooms throughout the house means that all someone has to do is shout the trigger words, and they are automatically connected to emergency services.
While one can understand the predicament of Amazon, Google, or Apple installing 911 capabilities inside their virtual assistants, the benefits far outweigh the potential pitfalls. As connected homes and voice assistants become more ubiquitous and affordable, technology companies have a real chance to play a role in dictating the path of public safety for the next generation.