As smart products flood American homes, should people worry that their devices are secretly spying on them?
2016 was the year of the smart speaker, with Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, and the accompanying AI assistant Alexa becoming instant hits in the home tech sector. A report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found that, as of November 2016, Amazon had sold over 5.1 million Echo speakers in the US in only two years, with two million sold in the first nine months of 2016.
Alexa utilizes natural speech recognition, machine learning, cloud connectivity, and other AI principles to give Echo users answers to questions, up-to-the-minute traffic updates, and news and weather information, all while adapting to her user’s preferences. She even connects to other IoT devices such as thermostats, light bulbs, and security systems to create an integrated “smart home.” With a simple wake word like “Alexa” or “Echo,” the Echo is ready to respond to any user request.
Is Echo Listening In?
But as often happens in tandem with the rise of new technology — especially when it comes to artificial intelligence — the prevalence of the Amazon Echo and other smart speakers has caused some users to feel a bit uneasy. The Echo features seven “always listening” microphones that constantly monitor surrounding noises for its wake word, recording in 60-second chunks. Those concerned about privacy are worried about who has access to the audio the Echo picks up. Do those 60-second audio increments get uploaded to the cloud? Could the recorded information be subpoenaed?
Amazon assures Echo users that these are non-issues — just because the Echo is always listening does not mean it’s always transmitting. Each 60-second audio increment is stored locally on the Echo until it’s overwritten by the following 60 seconds. If the user says the wake word, only a fraction of a second preceding the wake word is actually transmitted to the cloud. No outside source is able to access Echo’s idle recordings because the device does not store them.
But What About Data?
Despite the fact that these concerns about Echo and other smart speakers’ functionality can be easily laid to rest, others fear that the mere collection of data through profile building could lead to overreach by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon, and other tech giants.
“The world will be a very different place when Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and other AI-empowered players have assembled first-party profile data that includes our agency,” said the Palmer Group’s Shelly Palmer in Advertising Age. “It will make what they do with our current behavioral profiles look like primitive data processing.”
On one hand, Palmer’s observation is true. “AI-empowered players” regularly develop new and more powerful tools to organize and analyze data, then leverage that data to customize apps and device functionality. Echo uses a personalized data profile to feed users relevant news and let them know how traffic will affect scheduled appointments.
But the reality is that this collection doesn’t serve as a means to some nefarious end. Yes, data collection may improve a company’s ability to better understand their customer, but it’s necessary in order to create a user-friendly experience. AI-powered systems have the potential to transform diverse industries in positive ways.
For example, smart marketing tools like Albert™ collect data from multiple sources in order to improve digital advertising campaigns, so that customers are only delivered content that’s relevant to them and their needs. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities use AI to improve diagnoses and patient outcomes. Educators can use artificial intelligence to identify students who may need additional instruction, as well as potential learning disabilities.
Data collection is not a Big Brother bogeyman, and artificial intelligence isn’t a brokered middleman spying on people on behalf of big corporations. Analytics and AI have the power to dramatically improve our day-to-day lives, and if we remain careful about using them responsibly, there’s no ceiling on what the technology could accomplish.