Let’s all calm down about Samsung’s “eavesdropping” TVs

Media hype and poor technical literacy are fuelling a pile-on that’s totally divorced from reality

Samsung TV with a HAL-9000 glowing red eye

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Media hysteria and poor technical literacy are causing people to freak out about a standard legal disclaimer.

If there’s a worse example of conflating one technological issue with another for the purpose of sensationally drumming up fear than an NBC report Monday on Samsung televisions, I’d like to see it.

The “news” of the day was that Samsung smart TVs, equipped with voice recognition technology, were supposedly eavesdropping on users.

An eagle-eyed writer for The Korea Times found this nugget tucked into Samsung’s terms of service:

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

Cue the media hysteria. News organizations including NBC couldn’t wait to warn people “to watch what they say in their own homes, and especially where they say it.” The spectre of big corporations spying on us and owning our most intimate moments was dutifully invoked.

The reality, unfortunately, is far less ominous.

Anyone who has ever used a TV’s voice recognition function—whether it’s Samsung’s or any other manufacturer’s—probably knows there isn’t much to fear. The TVs are barely able to recognize basic spoken functions, never mind proper conversations. When it comes to voice recognition, “smart” TVs are the remedial cousins of Siri and Google Now.

Moreover, regardless of what any terms-of-service agreements say or what people agree to without reading, eavesdropping on private citizens in their homes is in most countries highly illegal, even for government agencies.

In light of that, chances are good that Samsung isn’t really collecting such data but rather poorly wording whatever it is doing.

Where NBC goes above and beyond the normal sensationalistic call of duty is in trying to link the story to concerns on artificial intelligence. As the story puts it:

Voice command technology is becoming more ubiquitous, and many consumers rely on those solutions—such as Apple’s Siri—to power their devices. Yet those protocols are only several degrees removed from autonomous devices, which is increasingly migrating from science fiction to reality. They also raise a host of privacy questions that experts are struggling to comprehend. Artificial intelligence is an increasingly hot topic, with high-profile technophiles such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates warning about the unintended consequences of unchecked smart technology.

Unfortunately, those “several degrees” that separate TV voice recognition from the kind of AI that has Musk and the rest worried could only be larger if they belonged to entirely different fields of science.

As IBM researcher David Buchanan put it in an op-ed for the Washington Post this past weekend, it would be a giant jump to go from even highly capable artificial intelligence to an AI that is conscious and therefore capable of making autonomous decisions like killing people. Computer consciousness is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, he writes.

To mention a smart TV in that discussion, then, is akin to suggesting that a singular ant could somehow eradicate the human species. But hey, that’s NBC for you.

Forgive the plug here, but these sorts of irresponsible, fear-mongering stories are exactly the sorts of thing I’m hoping to counter with my new book Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

It’s an objective look at technology’s effects on us as a species. And yes, the conclusion is a relatively positive and optimistic one that is free of the fear that is so often sown by poor news coverage.