Alexa, Sudo Read My Resistor! A Challenge for Hackers

Nothing makes us feel more like we’re on Star Trek then saying “Computer, turn on desk light,” and watching the light turn on. Of course, normal people would have left the wake up word as “Alexa,” but we like “Computer” even if it does make it hard to watch Star Trek episodes without the home automation going crazy.

There’s a lot of hype right now about how voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming everything. We’ve even seen a few high-profile types warning that AI is going to come alive and put us in the matrix or something. That gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure we are even close to that, yet. Alexa and Google’s similar offerings are cool, there’s no doubt about it. The speech recognition is pretty good, although far from perfect. But the AI is really far off still.

Today’s devices utilize two rather rudimentary parts to provide an interaction with users. The first is how the devices pattern match language; it isn’t all that sophisticated. The other is the trivial nature of many of the apps, or — as Alexa calls them — skills. There are some good ones to be sure, but for every one useful application of the technology, there’s a dozen that are just text-to-speech of an RSS feed. Looking through the skills available we were amused at how many different offerings convert resistor color codes back and forth to values.

There was a time when building electronics meant learning the resistor color code. With today’s emphasis on surface mount components, though, it is less useful than it used to be. Still, like flossing, you really ought to do it. However, if you have an Amazon Alexa, it can learn the color code for you thanks to [Dennis Mantz].

Don’t have an Alexa? You can still try it in your browser, as we will show you shortly. There are at least eight similar skills out there like this one from [Steve Jernigan] or [Andrew Bergstrom’s] Resistor Reader.

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Command Alexa With a Completely Mechanical Vintage Remote Control

Anyone with grandparents already knows that in ye olden days, televisions did not have remote control. Your parents probably still complain about how, as children, they were forced to physically walk over to the TV in order to switch between the three available channels. In these modern times of technological wonder, we have voice control, programmable touch screen remotes, and streaming services that will automatically play an entire season of the show you’re binge watching. However, before these, and before the ubiquitous infrared remote, television manufacturers were experimenting with ways to keep kids from having to run across the living room every time the channel needed to be changed.

Early remote controls were simply wired affairs — nothing too surprising there. But, it wasn’t long before methods of wireless control were being introduced. One early effort called the Flashmatic would shine light onto a photoelectric cell on the television set to control it. Of course, it might also be controlled by unintended light sources, and users had to have good aim to hit the sensor. These issues soon led to the introduction of the Zenith Space Command remote control, which used ultrasonic frequencies to control the TV.

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Control Alexa Echo from anywhere in the World

If you are not within ear-shot of your Alexa Echo, Dot or Tap device and need to command it from anywhere in the world, you’d most likely use the handy mobile app or web interface to control it. For some strange reason, if you’d rather use voice commands from anywhere in the world, you can still do it using apps such as Alexa Listens or Reverb, among many others. We’d be the first ones to call these out and say “It’s not a hack”. But [pat dhens] approach is above reproach! He has posted details on how to Remote Control the Alexa Echo from Anywhere in the World. Short version of the hack — he’s using a Raspberry Pi with a speaker attached to it which commands his Alexa Tap using a text-to-speech converter program.

The long version is short as well. The user uses a VPN, such as OpenVPN, to log in to their home network where the Alexa device is located. Then, use VNC to connect to the Raspberry Pi to access its shell. Finally, the user issues a text command which is converted to speech by the ‘festival‘ program on the Raspberry Pi. The output goes to an external speaker via the Raspberry Pi’s 3.5 mm audio out jack. And that’s all there is to it. You’ve just issued a voice command to your Alexa from across the world.

Maybe it will save your vocal chords from damage due to excessive hollering, we guess. He’s even made a short video to prove that it works. Now all it needs is a microphone to listen to Alexa, convert speech-to-text, and then transmit it back to you across the world to complete the cycle.

We’re not sure, but he thinks this hack will lead him to world domination. Good Luck with that.

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Alexa Keeps Pet Snake Thermoregulated

[Chris Grill] got his hands on a pet boa constrictor, which requires a fairly strict temperature controlled environment. Its enclosure needs to have a consistent temperature throughout, or the snake could have trouble regulating its body temperature. [Chris] wanted to keep tabs on the temp and grabbed a few TTF-103 thermistors and an Arduino Yun, which allowed him to log the temperature on each side of the enclosure. He used some code to get the temp reading to the linux side of an Arduino Yun, and then used jpgraph, a PHP graphing library, to display the results.

snakemainBut that wasn’t good enough. Why not get a little fancy and have Amazon’s Echo read the temps back when you ask! Getting it setup was not so bad thanks to Amazon’s well documented steps to get custom commands set up.

He eventually lost the battle to get the Echo to talk to the web server on the Yun due to SSL issues, but he found an existing workaround by using a proxy.

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“Alexa, Order Everyone In San Diego A Doll House”

Every day it seems there is a new Alexa story in the news, as for the moment the Amazon voice assistant is in the ascendant over its rivals from Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Today’s slice of Alexa weirdness comes courtesy of a newsreader in San Diego, who inadvertently triggered Alexa-enabled devices within hearing distance of a television to buy doll houses when he reported on a Dallas child’s accidental purchase.

It’s unclear whether any doll houses were dispatched or whether the Echos and Dots merely started the process and asked their owners for confirmation, but we hope it serves to draw attention to the risks associated with an always-on and always-listening device. We’ve looked at how the technology has seemingly circumvented the normal privacy concerns of our own community, so it’s hardly surprising that this kind of incident catches the greater public completely unprepared. It’s one thing for the denizens of a hackspace to troll the owner of a Dot by adding embarrassing products to their wish list, but against a less-informed user who hasn’t worked out how to lock down the device’s purchasing abilities, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a criminal attack.

Voice assistants are clearly going to become a ubiquitous feature of our lives, and it is inevitable that there will be more such unfortunate incidents which will serve to educate the public about their privacy before the technology reaches maturity. This particular story is definitely Not A Hack, though as our “Alexa” tag shows the devices have huge potential to bring a new dimension to our work. It’s up to all of us in our community to ensure that the voice assistant owners in our lives are adequately educated about them, and maybe resist the urge to say “Alexa, add all the Hackaday merchandise to my wish list!”.

Alexa Robot Coffee Maker Brews Coffee, Speaks For Itself

To keep hackers fueled and hacking, why not hack a coffee maker into a coffee brewing robot? [Carter Hurd] and [David Frank] did just that at The Ohio State’s Hack OHI/O 24 hour Hackathon. They even won the “Best Hardware Hack”. The video below shows it in action but the guys sent us some extra details on how it’s made.

To give it a voice they put Alexa on a Raspberry Pi. Using an audio splitter they have the voice go both to a speaker and to an Arduino. The Arduino then uses the amplitude of the audio signal’s positive values to determine how much to open the “mouth”, the coffee maker’s hinged cover. As is usually the case, there’s some lag, but the result is still quite good.

The brewing is also controlled by the Arduino. They plan to add voice control so that they can simply ask, “Alexa, make me coffee”, but for now they added a switch on the side to start the brewing. That switch tells the Arduino to work one servo to open the cover, another to insert a coffee filter, and two more to scoop up some coffee from a container and dump it into the filter.

They replaced the coffee maker’s on/off switch with a relay so that after the Arduino closes the cover again, it uses the relay to start the brewing. The result is surprisingly human-like. We especially like the graceful movement achieved by the two servos for scooping up and dumping the coffee. Full disclosure: they did admit that it would often either not scoop enough coffee or scoop enough but spill a bunch on the group.

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Police Want Alexa Data; People Begin to Realize It’s Listening

It is interesting to see the wide coverage of a police investigation looking to harvest data from the Amazon Echo, the always-listening home automation device you may know as Alexa. A murder investigation has led them to issue Amazon a warrant to fork over any recordings made during the time of a crime, and Amazon has so far refused.

Not too long ago, this is the sort of news would have been discussed on Hackaday but the rest of my family would have never heard about it. Now we just need to get everyone to think one step beyond this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

What isn’t being discussed here is more of concern to me. How many of you have a piece of tape over your webcam right now? Why did you do that? It’s because we know there are compromised systems that allow attackers to turn on the camera remotely. Don’t we have to assume that this will eventually happen with the Echo as well? Police warrants likely to affect far less users than account breaches like the massive ones we’ve seen with password data.

All of the major voice activated technologies assert that their products are only listening for the trigger words. In this case, police aren’t just looking for a recording of someone saying “Alexa, help I’m being attacked by…” but for any question to Alexa that would put the suspect at the scene of the crime at a specific time. Put yourself in the mind of a black hat. If you could design malware to trigger on the word “Visa” you can probably catch a user giving their credit card number over the phone. This is, of course, a big step beyond the data already stored from normal use of the system.

It’s not surprising that Amazon would be served a warrant for this data. You would expect phone records (although not recordings of the calls) to be reviewed in any murder case. Already disclosed in this case is that a smart water meter from the home reported a rather large water usage during the time of the murder — a piece of evidence that may be used to indicate a crime scene clean-up effort.

What’s newsworthy here is that people who don’t normally think about device security are now wondering what their voice-controlled tech actually hears them say. And this is a step in the right direction.