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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

This Week in Sound: Sonic Domestic Abuse + Audio AI Games

+ Interpol voice database + the history of Speak & Spell + much more

An annotated clipping service

Disrupting Abuse: “Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse,” writes Nellie Bowles in a widely circulated New York Times article. Bowles details how “Internet of Things” gadgets have become the tools of domestic abuse. It feels like we’re well past the idea of “unintended consequences,” an overused term that has an undeservedly forgiving geewillikers quality to it (“Just some good ol’ software engineers, never meaning no harm …”). We’re deep in the territory of what you might call “blind-eye consequences,” the consequences when technologists don’t do sufficient due diligence on the impact, the mis-use, the unintended use, of their inventions.

Dino-Mite: There is a game spun off of the Jurassic World movie that is played entirely using your voice on Alexa-powered devices. “You’re following a podcaster named Janet Best who is traveling to Isla Nublar to get the story of what’s going on with the dinosaurs on the island,” writes Ben Kuchera at polygon.com. “It’s up to you help her make decisions about how to survive by speaking the commands into your device.”   / / /   There’s also one for Westworld, writes Alexis Nedd at mashable.com: “Westworld: The Maze is a voice game in which players take on the role of a park host who, like Maeve, Akecheta, and Dolores, needs to power through their programming to arrive at the center of the titular Maze and achieve consciousness.”

Spoke & Spelled: It’s coincidence, but also excellent timing that the “voice games” for Alexa spun off of Jurassic World and Westworld coincide with the 40th anniversary of the progenitor of electronic voice games: Speak & Spell. Ernie Smith takes us wayback on tedium.co: “The reason the Speak & Spell, despite being a primitive device by modern standards, was such a fundamental piece of technology was that it hit a masterful mix of ambition and access. It did something legitimately novel–it taught children how to spell using sound synthesis, rather than tapes or records. And it did so while still being small enough and cheap enough that picking one up in a store seemed like a reasonable thing to do.” (Via subtopes.)

AI Yay Yay: There is, of course, the underlying anxiety about the role of always-listening devices such as Alexa in our lives — a future-shock phenomemon ripe for a novel by the late Michael Crichton, who originated both the rebooted series mentioned above, Jurassic Park and Westworld. Last month, Amazon explained how a private conversation was accidentally sent to one of an Alexa user’s contacts: “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” quoted by Richard Gao at androidpolice.com.

Spies Like Us: And even when our home appliances aren’t busy spying on what we say, we can be relieved that actual spies are still spying on what we say. “Last week, Interpol held a final project review of its speaker identification system, a four-year, 10 million euro project that has recently come to completion,” writes Ava Kofman in theintercept.com. “Speaker identification works by taking samples of a known voice, capturing its unique and behavioral features, and then turning these features into an algorithmic template that’s known as a voice print or voice model.” (Via subtopes.)

Duplex Planet: And when voice AI isn’t spying on us it is, bringing us back around to Westworld, trying to sound like us. Lauren Good, at wired.com, brings us up to speed on the development at Google of Duplex, its concierge AI voice system that makes reservation phone calls: “Google is trying to give its phone-calling robot a do-over. The company is attempting to prove it has addressed some of the concerns about Duplex. And its latest pitch around transparency is coming at a time when some of its more critical use cases for AI are being seriously questioned.”

Audio Briefs: Additional news. Drip Drop: Q: Why does tap water dripping sound like that? A: Resonant oscillations of an entrapped air bubble: nature.com.   / / /   The Free App: Garage Band Re-Revisited: The latest update of Apple’s Garage Band will help you learn an instrument: cdm.link.   / / /   Sponsor Blocker: “Tomek Rękawek, irritated by ads on the radio, created an app that mutes them. Radio Adblock uses digital signal processing to detect distinctive audio patterns that signal the beginning and end of breaks”: boingboing.net   / / /   Tech Support: And lifehacker.com helps solve a very specific but annoying problem: listening to audio files you receive as text messages. (Probably especially useful when your friend’s Alexa accidentally sends you one.)

Audio Life: 1. Turns out there was nothing wrong with my Bluetooth headphones that a cable couldn’t fix.   / / /   2. This is a new hassle for me: finding my place in an audiobook I fell asleep listening to. My TV guesses pretty well when I nod off. My phone apparently doesn’t.

This was first published in the June 28, 2018, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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