Hey Alexa, What’s in a Name? Actually, Let’s Call You Amazon

Xconomy National — 

With “Hey Google” and “Alexa” echoing from the expo halls of Las Vegas to millions of homes, the hype around voice-controlled computing is reaching a new peak in early 2018.

Voice-controlled devices are permeating our world, and this new user interface is the future of computing—or so we are told by the companies purveying it. Countless pieces are written exploring all the wonderful things we can do with Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa—the latter two deliberately and, as yet, unalterably female personae. I’ve read less about what these user-interface designs, and the mega corporations behind them, are doing to us.

The proliferating “smart speakers”—a misnomer we’ll unpack in a minute—and other voice-enabled devices in our kitchens, cars, and pockets will be the first interaction many people, including most kids, have with something that approximates artificial intelligence.

Talking to a machine like it’s a she, and having “her” talk back in an attempt to carry on the illusion, is a fundamental change in our model for interacting with what is still very much an “it”—a data-collection device for a highly profitable, data-driven corporation. And it is reasonable to think that these early interactions could influence how we, and our kids, view and treat both technology and people later in life. But this is an area that has been under-studied so far.

So—if it’s not too late—let’s enter into our relationship with Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Assistant, conscious of what we’re actually doing. The companies selling us on these devices and intelligent assistants are focused on the positives, and they have massive marketing budgets to make those aspects known. We should remain cognizant of the negatives, and, if we’re going to use these technologies, do so in a way that mitigates the bad stuff.

To that end, here are two lines of questioning, and an experiment, to think about as you use your smart speakers and digital assistants:

1. Why are these marketed as “smart speakers,” when they’re really something else?

We have had speakers in our homes for nearly a century, and the speaker part of your Amazon Echo or Google Home is probably its least novel component. What is fundamentally new about this category of device is the microphones—high-fidelity arrays designed to detect and listen to human speech from across the house—and the software behind them, usually masked as a female persona, that does your bidding. And of course, these devices also do their companies’ bidding, serving as another frictionless channel through which to sell us things, or collect data about us to sell to advertisers. That business value explains why Google and Amazon could justify losing money on the sale of the hardware, as some analysts suspect they did by cutting prices on Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot to $29 during the holidays.

The industry has deliberately branded them smart speakers, or smart assistants, because who would want to buy a smart microphone array connected to enormous computing resources controlled by the most powerful corporations on Earth?

Some IT security and digital privacy experts would not. And neither would I. Despite assurances that the microphones only begin recording after the wake-word is spoken—discarding whatever they capture while listening for that word—I’ve been in the presence of an Alexa that began “listening” without anyone having spoken the magic word, its blue and green ring spinning as it tracked a conversation to which it was not explicitly invited. (The subject of the conversation happened to be Jeff Bezos. Just saying.) And what of the private conversations it catches when we activate it by mistake?

Errors happen, bugs happen, IoT devices are hacked. I’m just not comfortable outfitting my private living space with smart microphones connected directly to huge companies.

Nevertheless, they are selling like smart hotcakes. Some 16 percent of U.S. adults own one, according to a survey late last year by NPR and Edison Research (PDF). Juniper Research predicts they will be in 55 percent of U.S. households in the next five years.

But we should call these what they really are, smart microphones. Or, if you must, a smart microphone and digital assistant.

2. Do you treat Alexa/Siri/Cortana/Google Home like a person, a computer, or a corporation? Do you allow or require your kids to treat it like a person?

While I wouldn’t have a smart microphone in my home, I do enjoy interacting with them when visiting friends and family, and I’m fascinated watching kids … Next Page »

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