Amazon Hears An Echo, But Who Else Is Listening?

on Tuesday, Nov. 11th

The announcement last week of a “smart speaker” by retail giant Amazon was surprising for two reasons.

The first was that no one was expecting, even in the slightest, that Amazon had an intelligent home assistant/music player up its sleeve. The elegant lines of the cylinder bring the look of the Mac Pro to mind, even if the cheesy video that introduced Echo to the world had more of a Microsoft than an Apple vibe.

The second surprise was that Amazon had set itself the task of persuading consumers to put a listening device into their homes.

That’s the spin, at least, in headlines like “Amazon Wants To Put A Listening Speaker In Your Home“ from NPR and “Amazon Echo is either the coolest wireless speaker ever—or the creepiest“ from Fox. Finally, something the two news orgs can agree on: cloud connected microphones make everyone jumpy.

This is one of the crisis points of modern consumer technology: just when we are on the cusp of getting some *Star Trek* style conversations out of our gear, we’ve woken up to the possibility of mass surveillance. The convenience of having a computer that can answer every question you might think of is mitigated by the fact that everything it hears can wind up in the wrong hands.

What makes a set of hands wrong is in the eye of the beholder: for some it is government spooks, for others hackers. Then there is always the creep factor of having a major company with that kind of access to your home. The subtle distinction that comes with having to explain that these devices have “trigger” words that magically turn on the full range of commands is lost right from the get-go. “Always on” with an asterisk is still “always on” in many people’s minds.

Objections to “always on” mics are one of the things that killed consumer enthusiasm for Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, the camera and microphone combination that allows for motion controlled games and voice commands for television. While it certainly didn’t help that the Kinect has always been janky—it takes several sets of fingers and toes to count the number of times I wound up fruitlessly shouting at my TV to play the Food Network—it was the*idea alone* of the surveillance applications that turned a marquee launch feature into a public relations albatross. (It sure didn’t help that the new iteration of the Kinect was announced in the immediate wake of the Edward Snowden leak.)

While a lot of noise was made about Microsoft putting “spy devices” into homes, many of those raising the cry are running around with cloud connected microphones all the blasted time. That would be cell phones. The difference between the connected microphones in our pocket and the idea of an “always on” living room assistant is largely a perceptual one.

It’s not just that Android phones have voice activation, or that a plugged in iPhone can now be woken up with “Hey, Siri.” Voice activation unnerves people in a way that physical buttons don’t.

From a hacker’s point of view—be they pure black hat or employed by the NSA—a cloud connected microphone is a cloud connected microphone. If it can be woken up by software, it doesn’t matter if there is a voice activation routine or not. Okay, maybe that’s not a hacker’s point of view but it is the *popular perception* of a hacker’s point of view.

Since *most* of us seem to be fine with carrying around cloud connected microphones, the underlying issue for gadget makers is one of perception. How can an era of conversational technology be ushered in without causing massive amounts of anxiety?

Perhaps consumers would be more comfortable with physical buttons that summoned up the pseudo-A.I. genies instead of the “magic word” solution that is being offered up now. This wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: those microphones can still be hacked, but it could help with getting people to adopt the technology.

Which leaves behind the question of whether or not we *should* adopt the technology. Perhaps we should wait until we don’t need “the cloud” to “do” voice recognition. Safeguarding privacy in a connected society just might prove to be impossible, and the conveniences we have earned so far increasingly feel like they come with too dear a price.


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