“Researchers can now send secret audio instructions undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.” C. Smith, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“Many people have grown accustomed to talking to their smart devices, asking them to read a text, play a song or set an alarm. But someone else might be secretly talking to them, too.
Over the past two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online — simply with music playing over the radio.
A group of students from University of California, Berkeley and Georgetown University showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on airplane mode or open a website. This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text.
‘We wanted to see if we could make it even more stealthy,’ said Nicholas Carlini, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer security at U.C. Berkeley and one of the paper’s authors. Mr. Carlini added that while there was no evidence that these techniques have left the lab, it may only be a matter of time before someone starts exploiting them. ‘My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do,’ he said. These deceptions illustrate how artificial intelligence — even as it is making great strides — can still be tricked and manipulated. Computers can be fooled into identifying an airplane as a cat just by changing a few pixels of a digital image, while researchers can make a self-driving car swerve or speed up simply by pasting small stickers on road signs and confusing the vehicle’s computer vision system.
The proliferation of voice-activated gadgets amplifies the implications of such tricks. Smartphones and smart speakers that use digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri are set to outnumber people by 2021, according to the research firm Ovum. And more than half of all American households will have at least one smart speaker by then, according to Juniper Research…There is already a history of smart devices being exploited for commercial gains through spoken commands.
Last year, Burger King caused a stir with an online ad that purposely asked ‘O.K., Google, what is the Whopper burger?” Android devices with voice-enabled search would respond by reading from the Whopper’s Wikipedia page. The ad was canceled after viewers started editing the Wikipedia page to comic effect.
A few months later, the animated series South Park followed up with an entire episode built around voice commands that caused viewers’ voice-recognition assistants to parrot adolescent obscenities. There is no American law against broadcasting subliminal messages to humans, let alone machines…Courts have ruled that subliminal messages may constitute an invasion of privacy, but the law has not extended the concept of privacy to machines.
Now the technology is racing even further ahead of the law. Last year, researchers at Princeton University and China’s Zhejiang University demonstrated that voice-recognition systems could be activated by using frequencies inaudible to the human ear. The attack first muted the phone so the owner wouldn’t hear the system’s responses, either.
The technique, which the Chinese researchers called DolphinAttack, can instruct smart devices to visit malicious websites, initiate phone calls, take a picture or send text messages. While DolphinAttack has its limitations — the transmitter must be close to the receiving device — experts warned that more powerful ultrasonic systems were possible…Mr. Carlini said he was confident that in time he and his colleagues could mount successful adversarial attacks against any smart device system on the market. ‘We want to demonstrate that it’s possible,’ he said, ‘and then hope that other people will say, ‘O.K. this is possible, now let’s try and fix it.’”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer
Directions: Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- People have grown accustomed to talking to their smart devices.
- Researchers can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear.
- A group of students showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers.
- The students wanted to see if they could make it even more stealthy.
- Malicious people already employ people to give secret commands to phones.
- These deceptions illustrate how artificial intelligence can be manipulated.
- With audio attacks, the researchers are exploiting the gap between human and machine speech recognition.
- There is already a history of smart devices being exploited for commercial gains.
- There is no American law against broadcasting subliminal messages to humans.
- Courts have ruled that subliminal messages may constitute an invasion of privacy.
Directions: Review the following statements from the reading. If a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they mark it F and provide the correct answer.
- Researchers in Japan and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands.
- Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are the three major devices listed.
- In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online.
- Harvard researchers published a research paper saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text.
- Nicholas Carlini is a security guard at U.C. Berkeley.
- Mr. Carlini believes that malicious people already employ people to give hidden commands.
- The bottom line is that artificial intelligence can be tricked and manipulated.
- Smartphones and smart speakers that use digital assistants will not outnumber people by 2021.
- Amazon said it has taken steps to ensure its Echo smart speaker is secure.
- There is already a history of smart devices being exploited for commercial gains through spoken commands.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
This month, some of those ___researchers published a research ___that went further, saying they could ___commands directly into recordings of ___or spoken text. So while a ___listener hears someone talking or an ___playing, Amazon’s Echo ___might hear an instruction to add something to your ___list.
WORD LIST: shopping, embed, Berkeley, speaker, orchestra, paper, human, music,
III. Post Reading Activities
Discussion for Comprehension /Writing
- Do you use Siri, Alexa and Google’s Assistant regularly?
- Do you feel secure about your information?
- After reading this article how do you feel about your smart devices? Do you trust them?
- Think of ways you can deter malicious outsiders from interfering with your iPhones and other devices.
1-Minute Free Writing Exercise
Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading. Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.