The hottest toy for the over-6 set this season was not a Hatchimal. It was Amazon's very personable and very responsive Alexa. You can find Alexa in a host of Amazon gadgets including the Echo and Dot, both are counter-top devices that you can talk to and will fulfill your requests.
Want to play some music to set the mood? "Alexa, please play some Michael Buble." Want to know the current temperature in Kalamazo? "Alexa, what's the weather like in Kalamazoo?" Need more laundry detergent? "Alexa, please get me some Tide pods."
And as one young girl found out, Alexa can be too helpful. When 6-year-old Brooke Neitzel asked, "Alexa, can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?," a $170 Kidcraft Sparkle Mansion showed up at her door the next day.
Alexa is -- for the most part -- fun and games with more than a little utility built in. But there are some privacy concerns to wrestle with. While Alexa activates only when you say her name, it turns out that she may be listening all the time. And what she hears is now the center of a murder investigation.
Alexa is programmed to stream your audio to cloud-based storage after it detects a speaker say the "wake word." To work, the device is always listening. Once it hears its keyword, like "Alexa," it shares what it hears to fulfill a request. Those statements are recorded and kept...indefinitely.
It is unclear what the device does with all of what it hears in between. And that question is being litigated in an Arkansas murder investigation. Police there are investigating a murder -- a man was found floating face-up in his friend's hot tub. Authorities have obtained a search warrant for the contents of the home's Amazon Echo and all of its recordings. Amazon is challenging the search warrant.
There is a proliferation of these helpful, voice-activated devices. What started with the iPhone and Siri has evolved. Google and Amazon are leading the pack in this technology. Comcast Cable offers a talking remote. You can carry on a conversation with your Samsung TV. At the Consumer Electronics Show going on this week in Las Vegas, there are upwards of 2,000 voice controlled, cloud-based devices on display.
All of these devices note that they utilize your recordings to improve their technology and responses. But to do so, companies are combing though not just specific requests, but also the conversations that surround them. It is unsettling, but is that the price of our brave new age of convenience and technology?
"Alexa, cover your ears..."