How Burger King’s OK Google ad exposed flaws in home automation

Burger King recently decided to try something different to promote its classic Whopper. The fast food giant aired a commercial in which a Burger King employee who says he doesn’t have time to talk about all of the ingredients in a Whopper comes up with another way for customers to learn about its ingredients.

The employee leans into the camera and says “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?” This activated Google’s smart speakers — Google Home, and that’s when people started having fun. The actual ingredient list, as published on Wikipedia, was edited with some items replaced with things like children, toe-nail clippings and rat — among other creative ingredients.

Google wasn’t in on the plan, which led to an interesting chain of events that exposed some of the weaknesses of virtual assistants and home automation.

Voice Recognition
The Burger King ad pointed out an issue with voice-activated home automation devices. It’s not difficult for people besides the primary owners to manipulate them.

With some creativity, someone may find a way to do something more nefarious than manipulate the ingredients of your favorite burger. If clever had turned to criminal, this would be an easy way for hackers to manipulate virtual assistants.

Learning to recognize specific users’ voices would help minimize these problems and give people more control over their devices. To get around this issue, tech companies need to start improving the voice recognition capabilities of their VAs, which they are currently working on.

Google responded to the ad by changing their devices so the voice in the ad wouldn’t wake them. They probably did this by getting the device to recognize the voice and then compare it to a blacklist before responding.
This worked for a while, but Burger King got around it by airing similar commercials featuring different actors. Google has said it’s working on the ability to recognize the voices of multiple users.

Amazon, which manufactures one of the more popular smart speakers, is also working on multiple user functionality. Users would have to set up this feature in advance by recording a voice sample. Currently, Amazon’s Alexa can recognize more than one user, but you have to switch accounts by saying “switch accounts” or by using the Alexa app.

Microsoft’s Cortana appears on Windows 10 devices, as well as some third-party devices, including smart speakers made by Harman Kardon. Although Microsoft hasn’t gotten as much attention as some other players in the home automation game, Cortana does respond pretty well to voice commands.
You can even train Cortana to recognize your voice and set it to respond to only you. It’s probably a pretty safe bet, too, that Microsoft is working on improving this functionality.

Apple’s Siri has some ability to recognize speech patterns of particular users. The company doesn’t have smart speakers on the market yet, but it has been rumored to be working on them. Voice recognition is likely a top priority for Apple as it works on this technology, as it’s important to the security and privacy of its users.

It’s even been rumored that Apple may use facial recognition technology to verify users. The fact that Apple typically only allows Siri to work with its devices, and not third-party ones, presents another challenge.

Home automation and virtual assistants are just starting to take off, and this Burger King kerfuffle is likely just one of many slightly strange happenings that will occur as they develop. Although Google didn’t seem to like the ad — it blocked its devices from responding — and some users may have gotten annoyed, Burger King did succeed in getting itself some attention.

The ad put Google Home in the spotlight, too, and highlighted its capabilities, which is a plus for Google as well. It also highlighted some weaknesses in home automation, which tech companies will have to continue to address.

Megan Wild is editor of

Bank of America hires chatty virtual robot

Reuters / Joshua Lott / File Photo
Reuters / Joshua Lott / File Photo

By David Henry, Reuters

Bank of America plans to provide customers with a chatty “virtual assistant” named Erica that will use artificial intelligence to make suggestions over mobile phones for improving their financial affairs.

Michelle Moore, head of digital banking for Bank of America, said in an interview on Monday that Erica will be smarter than a robot because she will bring up topics on her own, using predictive analytics as opposed to only answering questions customers ask.

For example, Erica may recommend taking steps to lift a sagging credit rating she noticed. Or, she may propose a customer make higher monthly payments on an outstanding credit card balance to reduce interest expenses.  Continue reading Bank of America hires chatty virtual robot

White House could replace millions of US government workers with robots

IPSoft’s Amelia digital assistant
IPSoft’s Amelia digital assistant, which recently found a government job in the UK

The White House is preparing to replace millions of US government workers with robots, if comments by a senior technology official is anything to go by. 

Writing on the White House blog, Ed Felten, deputy US chief technology officer, says the government is working with various agencies to integrate artificial intelligence systems into its operations.

His title for the piece takes the view that the government is “preparing for the future”, and talks of the “tremendous opportunities… across the federal government in privacy, security, regulation, law, and research and development” in incorporating AI into government.

The US government currently employs approximately 22 million humans.

Continue reading White House could replace millions of US government workers with robots

Virtual assistants prepare to take over the world of work

Dennis Mortensen, CEO,,
Dennis Mortensen, CEO,, pictured in the Wall Street area of New York, US

Exclusive interview with Dennis Mortensen, founder and CEO of intelligent assistants technology developer 

Virtual assistants, or intelligent assistants, are multiplying by the day. Currently there are around a dozen really well-known ones, such as Siri and Cortana, and then there’s several dozen other reasonably well-known ones talking or otherwise communicating their way into the public consciousness.

These intelligent assistants can be placed in at least 10 different categories, such as text and chatbots, personal advisors, and employee assistants.

Of these, perhaps the most commercially profitable is the employee assistants category. And within this segment, the virtual assistance technology that arguably holds most promise is the one produced by – in part because among its investors is SoftBank, the Japanese communications giant behind Pepper, the cloud-connected humanoid robot which is claimed to be able to discern human emotions and communicate appropriately.  Continue reading Virtual assistants prepare to take over the world of work

Google boss downplays devices and talks up artificial intelligence

google sundar pichai

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, says the days of the ‘device’ are numbered 

The chief executive of Google, Sundar Pichai, says he can foresee the day when the “device” as we know it will be no more.

In a blog post on Google’s website, Pichai says: “Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away.”

The reason, Pichai writes, is because artificial intelligence will make all devices work seamlessly and, therefore, make devices less important than the AI software behind them.

“Over time, the computer itself – whatever its form factor – will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day,” says Pichai. “We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.”

Full story on Google’s blog.

Your artificially intelligent assistant is ready to take a letter

boss dictates letter to secretaryOne of the many perks of being the boss of a reasonably sized company is having your own personal assistant, someone who you can dictate letters to, someone who keeps your diary updated, answers your phones and helps you organise your time so you are as efficient and as productive as you can be at work.

A good PA is often very highly paid, commensurate with the company and business sector he or she works for, and their image as super-fast typists and excellent organisers is one that is often celebrated and acknowledged.

However, the relationship between the boss and the PA could be about to change forever as a result of developments in artificially intelligent assistant technology. Already there are a number of artificially intelligent personal assistants – let’s call them AIPAs for now – on the market and according to some, they’re quite good. Continue reading Your artificially intelligent assistant is ready to take a letter