The Listening Machines
By now you’ve heard the beckoning of tech companies to buy a device for your home, whereby you can calmly (or loudly) speak “hey Alexa-hey Google-hey Siri” into the air and a machine, listening for the right queue, will help you do something or provide something in return. It’s the far-fetched sci-fi dream of yore — controlling your appliances throughout the home, and asking an esoteric artificial intelligence machine to do your bidding. It’s the invisible interface. But is it the final frontier for computing? And what must we sacrifice and compromise to get there?
What Exactly is Going on in the Home?
A few years ago, both Google and Apple introduced home automation frameworks in an attempt to bind several disparate Internet of Things products from third-party manufacturers. Google’s Android@Home—nowait-Brillo-holdon-Android Things and Apple’s HomeKit play important roles in centralizing control for the myriad of hardware and products that are now, for reasons of convenience (?), Internet-connected (lights, switches, locks, cameras, fans, windows, etc.). These centralized controls are found in things like the Apple Home app on your iOS device or Apple TV, since you’d probably rather use just one app that dozens of individuals apps to control your dozens of Internet-connected products.
But what makes all this even easier? An invisible interface you simply talk to, that is always on, and always at the ready. And so here is where the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and upcoming Apple HomePod enter stage left. With the innocent looks of a speaker, these are beamforming, microphone-arrayed devices that can parse out human voice through the noise of running music in the background and can respond to a variety of inputs from the user. Sure, they’re limited to what they can do, but all of them will allow for pretty consistent behavior, namely:
- Manipulation of music, playlists, etc.
- Mostly done natively through each company’s maintained music platform (like Amazon Music), though other music platforms can be streamed as well
- Answering basic questions, setting timers, and so forth
- Controlling Internet-connected devices and accessories
Conveniency and ubiquity continue to be the name of the game here. Why place an always-on listening device in your home? Because it’s more convenient to say “hey Alexa, play xx album” out loud without thinking about anything but the words than opening your phone, opening the music app, conducting a search with the software keyboard, and then hitting play. If these voice assistants can become as intricately sophisticated as we need them to be, they certainly could be the future operating systems.
Is There a Danger of Overreach?
So should we be cautious about all this new tech? Probably.
First off, having nearly everything in your home connected to the Internet could be considered dangerous in its own right. Mr. Robot has a damning episode on home automation going haywire due to malevolent hackers. It could happen. Smart home accessories have already broken down, leaving owners confused as to how to turn on a light switch.
Security is paramount. And its importance is not just integral to keeping all connected devices safe from being manipulated from the outside, but also keeping privacy intact for owners of listening devices. These devices have been raising concerns about in-home privacy more than the cameras on your laptop and phones have of late. As Alex Swoyer writes in the Washington Times:
Consumers generally are believed to have consented to a company being able to collect information based on the product’s use guidelines. But whether consumers are truly aware of what that means, and whether companies are able to share the information they collect with the government raise more questions.
These devices must listen for a key phrase in order to initiate on the user’s command, so it’s no secret that the microphone is “on” at all times. Unless you’re using a setting that requires a button press to initiate, like Siri on your iPhone. The concern of privacy and potential overreach by these devices came to the forefront of an investigation in Arkansas, late in 2015. According to NPR, we know from court documents that police confiscated an Amazon Echo at the scene of an apparent murder post-football party to potentially seek out additional information that the device may have recorded at the time of the crime. Additionally, it was stated that "investigators are also using information from a smart water meter, alleging that an increase in water use in the middle of the night suggests a possible cleanup around the crime scene”.
I’m not telling you to refrain from purchasing these kinds of products. They are, after all, extremely convenient and powerful (even in their infancy right now), and offer a pretty concrete vision of where tech companies are going in the near-future. But I am suggesting to you to think carefully about which ones you buy, and the potential unintended consequences of having one in your home.
Apple Takes the High Road
So what is the most valuable company on the planet doing? Late to the game, some may say. But at their recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple did announce a product launching in December called HomePod. It’s their version of the voice assistant-powered intelligent speaker, and being an Apple product, the company has a very clear idea of what its marketing message is for it.
Unlike Amazon Echo and Google Home, both of which emphasize the artificial intelligence behind the tech to drive a number of services, Apple is heavily leaning into tackling the home audio market for its HomePod (think Bose and Sonos as competitors, not Amazon or Google). They’ve called it “the new sound of home”, and it’s no mistake that they’ve put music and superior sound quality as the banner features. Ben Lovejoy has an astute write-up on the differences between Apple’s strategy here, claiming that Siri does still lag behind competitive voice assistant systems, but has a very focused direction compared to data-gathering giants like Google.
Given the comprehensive nature of the Apple ecosystem, Apple could choose to go down the same route as Google. It could use all of the data it has about me, tie Siri queries to my Apple ID and deliver the same level of intelligence and proactive suggestions as Google Home. If it did so, nobody would be saying that Siri lags significantly behind Google’s artificial intelligence.
But Apple makes a deliberate choice not to do so. When I ask Siri a question, my iPhone doesn’t attach my Apple ID to my query so that Siri’s servers can make contextual sense of it. All that is sent is a random identifier that cannot be linked to my identity in any way. The random identifier is used to help Siri learn my voice: it doesn’t know who I am, but it knows that my query came from (say) person 7582066701, and it can check back over six months to match my query against my voice file to better understand what I actually said.
Will the concessions in favor of privacy compromise Apple’s growth with Siri and its connected devices, or will the trade-off be a good middleground? I obviously am in the camp favoring data privacy, and am willing to lag behind the use-cases of competitor devices to instead wait for Apple’s cautious take on this new medium. But keep in mind that all these devices are in very early stages of their feature roadmaps, and most people don’t even know what these voice assistant-powered speakers can and cannot do. Mostly that’s because the enabled service features are still be rolled out for third-parties to use, and while Apple limits the usages to just a handful of actions, most features from Google and Amazon are used by developers but not used by the products’ users.
Recode reports”when developers for Alexa and its competitor, Google Assistant, do get someone to enable a voice app, there’s only a 3 percent chance, on average, that the person will be an active user by week 2”. It’s no surprise, then to read this:
The statistics underscore the difficulty Amazon and Google are having in getting Echo and Home owners to discover and use new voice apps on their platforms. Instead, many consumers are sticking to off-the-shelf actions like streaming music, reading audiobooks and controlling lights in their homes.
Too many choices are oftentimes too much to handle. Until these devices are ubiquitous and their broad services are well known enough to all consumers, most voice applications will probably go unused, just like applications on your phone or computer go unused either from being undiscoverable by the user, or the lack in need of its employment.
Where We Go From Here
Whether you want to call this tech transition full of overreach or not, the tale of listening “smart” speakers reinforces a few things that come with the territory of most topics I discuss on this site.
One is that we need to think through the kind of future we want. Current and future generations will probably become more accustomed to the invasiveness of these kinds of systems in our homes, and won’t think much about the privacy consequences. To them (and to many in general), it’s about convenience.
Secondly, we need to ensure that we continue to build next generation Internet-connected devices and accessories with a strong security foundation. Many security specialists, including Bruce Schneier, have advocated for a rebuilding of certain Internet protocols and security features to bake into the future of the Internet. How do we get there? Through policy and innovation. At least we hope.
Thirdly, we need to be mindful of the kinds of products we use, what the manufacturer is providing as a service, and at what cost to you. You should know by now that Google makes money off your data (they’re an advertising company); Amazon makes money off your purchases (they’re primarily a retailer); Apple makes money off your hardware purchases (they’re primarily a hardware design company). None of this may matter to you, but in the case of compromised data, hardware, and privacy risks, it’s clear that one company is probably a safer bet than the others.
Finally, someone needs to redesign the way Terms of Services are written. No consumer reads this shit thoroughly, and most of us don’t even know what we’re signing up for or handing over to various companies and third-parties. It’s an epidemic, and we need some sound policies enacted to clear up the mess for everyday people. You know, for us. We aren’t all lawyers, and we don’t have hours to read through and verify we’re good with these conditions. Leave that to Norwegian slow TV.