Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Amazon Echo: Cool, Creepy or Confusing?

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Have you used Apple Siri or Google Now? How about Microsoft Cortana? These "intelligent assistants" are software that allow for interaction with a smartphone using natural language. They rely on an Internet connection, with the majority of the complexity pushed to the cloud. Your words are transmitted and interpreted in the cloud, and actions on them are taken, whether looking up information on the web or initiating functions on your smart phone such as playing music.

Last week Amazon Echo, a new product in this category, was announced. The device is called the Echo, but users address the intelligent assistant as “Alexa.” Unlike the earlier products in this category, Echo is not a smartphone function, it’s a standalone object – a speaker with a microphone and an Internet connection that’s intended to be placed as a stationary object in a room. While Siri travels with you and is generally used only by you, Echo is placed in a room and is used by anyone in that space.

What are the new capabilities offered by a stationary intelligent assistant? Imagine a set of Echo-like devices spread around your house. Could I “ask Alexa” where my son is or when he left today? Could I ask whether the doorbell rang while I was away? These are events that the Echo could conceivably tell me about. You and your family members might start to access the Internet from anywhere using natural language, searching for information, making dinner reservations or buying concert tickets, and calling for music or movies to be played. With a few Echoes in your home working in a coordinated fashion, your entire house becomes a powerful user interface.

Of course, all devices from Amazon help you to shop. There’s every reason to expect that the Echo will do that as well. How? Ask out loud for things to be added to your Amazon cart or even to be fully purchased (1-click? Think zero clicks). Given that the device is always listening in order to respond when you call for "Alexa," it could be listening for clues to better target advertising. “Mom! My pants are ripped!” could cause boys clothing ads to start showing up in your browser. That suggests a fun game to play at your friends house: What will happen if we repeatedly sprinkle an unlikely product name into conversation when visiting a friend? “You know what you need Bob? Cod liver oil! I swear by cod liver oil. Cod liver oil promotes good health. Cod liver oil was good enough for our grandparents, and by golly cod liver oil should be good enough for us. Where do you think we can buy you some cod liver oil?” Let’s see what magically shows up in Bob’s web browser ads!

A more serious question might be whether you would want an always-listening device in your home - perhaps (eventually) in almost every room. Does this kind of device imply voluntary, full-time surveillance everywhere? Is there a risk of compromise and eavesdropping by hackers, or abuse by law enforcement? Are those risks acceptable given the many positives?

Which brings us back to today's question: is Amazon Echo Cool, Creepy or just Confusing?

Please leave a comment and share what you think.


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