Schools, prisons, and other public places have been relying on AI-enhanced microphones to detect signs of trouble. They may have been better off putting their money elsewhere.
What’s new: ProPublica and Wired jointly investigated a widely-used system designed to listen to the surrounding environment and report sounds that indicate aggression in progress. They found the technology prone to false positives. For instance, a cough triggered an alert, as did a classroom full of students cheering for pizza. Yet it failed to register screams in more than 50 percent of trials.
Smart security: The Dutch firm Sound Intelligence developed the system, which uses machine learning models to detect “sound patterns associated with duress, anger, or fear.”
- The company touts it as an early warning system that can alert security personnel to impending incidents before they explode.
- Its products monitor more than 100 facilities in the U.S. and 1,000 worldwide.
Mixed reviews: A hospital in Fort Myers, Florida, said Sound Intelligence devices alerted its guards to unruly visitors, allowing them to intervene before situations escalated. However, another hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey, cancelled its $22,000 pilot program after efforts to calibrate the system culminated in an incident that required six security officers to resolve.
What the company says: Sound Intelligence CEO Derek van Der Vorst acknowledged the reporters’ findings and admitted the devices aren't perfect. “I wouldn’t claim that we could prevent a crazy loony from shooting people,” he told ProPublica.
What experts say: “Happy or elated speech shares many of the same signatures as hot anger,” said Shae Morgan, an audiologist at the University of Louisville’s medical school. He pointed out that many acts of aggression — for example, the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida— are preceded by nothing but cold silence.
We’re thinking: One of the biggest non-technical challenges facing AI is providing the public with a realistic assessment of its capabilities. It can work beautifully in a lab staffed by clear-eyed engineers yet fail in a room packed with gleeful kids. Developers need to be rigorous in devising real-world tests, and their colleagues in sales need to recognize that hype can do more harm than good.