Voice/AI as a weapon: the growing mystery behind Havana Syndrome
In 1997, Madonna was on board to perform the vocals for Teardrop, a new song from British group Massive Attack. But the band went a different direction, approaching lesser-known Elizabeth Fraser to be the vocalist instead.
Fraser ended up both writing the song’s lyrics and performing the vocals, and the rest is history: Teardrop became a #1 hit and was notably featured as the theme song for the TV show House.
On February 20, 60 Minutes unleashed a landmark report on Havana Syndrome, a microwave-based “acoustical” attack that has been used upward of 1,000 times, mainly on members of US government on both the political left and right.
An energy wave renders its targets incapacitated, barely able to think straight and stand up, with a distinct and excruciating noise as a hallmark of the attack. Victims all show the same signs of brain damage afterward, including the 20 children this has affected thus far.
The first documented instances of this weapon were in 2016 in Havana (thus the name) on the US consulate. Former President Donald Trump promptly closed the facility, while blaming Cuban officials for the attacks.
All sorts of explanations have been offered, over the five years since this took place, including one set of academics blaming these sonic attacks, in a controversial 2020 book, on crickets and cicadas causing ‘mass psychosis’.
Unfortunately, these attacks have not only continued, but they have intensified, targeting US government officials around the world, bizarrely often following them from country to country as they travel.
As noted in the 60 Minutes piece, one of these victims was able to function just enough to observe a white van on the street which appeared to be originating the microwaves, before it drove away.
Escalating this further was the news from a couple of weeks ago that the White House itself has been targeted by this weapon at some point during Trump’s administration.
The Cuban embassy, just this week, has re-opened on a very limited basis, serving only families looking to emigrate to the United States - no walk-ins are allowed whatsoever and appointments are made strictly with families already possessing completed paperwork beforehand.
On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, diverting attention to a different global front.
But this mystery remains.
Sound has an interesting and repeated history of being deployed as a weapon, dating back to Biblical references.
Often, it’s simply in the form of being LOUD. For example, in 2015 when former President Barack Obama went to the Philippines to meet with leaders as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) body, Philippine police made news by assaulting protestors with Katy Perry’s hit song “Roar” at deafening volume.
This Havana Syndrome is different. The sonic component of the attack is a byproduct of being hit with high-energy microwaves, frying the senses and fraying the neurological system in the process.
The concept of sound being used as a weapon, and the thought that any voice technology powered by conversational AI could be deployed for such purposes, is troubling.
Ultimately, whoever and whatever is causing Havana Syndrome will be found. Until then, seemingly like with everything these days, you get some people saying this is all some sort of misinformation, while the US government says the exact opposite, leaving most confused and frustrated.
The floor plan for Project Voice 2022 (April 25-28, Chattanooga TN) will be released tomorrow - almost every booth is spoken for at this point, with just a couple remaining, and the layout will involve the conference program and exhibition booths together in the same large ballroom.
Confirmed exhibitors: Applause, Audiobrain, National Geographic, Vixen Labs, Atexto, Quantiphi, Lenovo, Speechmatics, WillowTree, Bespoken, Deepgram, DataForce, SoundHound, ReadSpeaker, HEAD acoustics, Rabbit & Pork, Symbl.ai, Speechly, Slang Labs, Cyrano.ai, Canary Speech, Constant Companion, Got-It AI, and Amazon.
A number of companies have booths held for them while deals are completed, and 30 exhibitors are expected in total alongside the 750 executives attending.
This Week In Voice (Season 6, Episode 8) featuring guests Kumar Rangarajan (CEO, Slang Labs) and Tobias Dengel (CEO, WillowTree) is available on YouTube here and hits podcast providers later this evening.