Technology / 10.10.2018

Always listening: Can you still trust your microwave?

A year and a half ago, I was sitting in a makerspace with fellow makers, late at night, absorbing what I could about IoT platforms. The leader of the meet-up had cobbled together a facial recognition device using an old webcam and an Amazon Echo voice assistant.  At that time, there were no devices from Amazon that had cameras, but there was a set of self-service APIs available for developers to explore and extend Alexa’s voice-assisted smarts called Alexa Skills.

Being new to tinkering with IoT, I was unaware the Alexa ecosystem had capabilities beyond voice control. What my colleague shared with us shortly thereafter surprised me. Projected on the wall was raw data being generated by his clever little contraption–hundreds of calculations evaluating physical details, as reflected in percentages, on things like whether or not he had a beard to less tangible assessments such as whether he seemed happy–all available for use if you knew what you wanted to do with the information.  The amount of data being captured was at once impressive and frightening.

A picture of code projected on a wall.

 

It’s been over a week since Amazon made a surprise announcement of more than a dozen new hardware products that use Alexa’s voice assistant platform. The unexpected announcement caught many by surprise, and left even more wondering why a $60 Alexa-powered microwave oven was in the mix, or even pertinent.

An image of Alexa's voice recognition products.
 

Strangely, the microwave was the one that peaked my interest the most.  Not because I am overwhelmed by the excitement of asking my smart microwave to heat up a Hot Pocket, but because it subtly conveys that Amazon has every intention of making the Alexa’s voice-control ecosystem the de facto user experience for our physical spaces, much the way Google dominates our digital ones.

According to a March 2018 report by industry news and analysis firm Voicebot, Amazon holds 71.9% of the smart speaker market, compared to 18.4% for Google. In releasing dozens of products in new categories and at different price points, it shows they are willing to move aggressively to be the leader in how we interface with our devices in the home.

Voicebot Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report January 2018
 

As with Prime membership, the more Amazon can be integrated into our day-to-day life, the harder it will be to leave it. Amazon sees a tightly integrated AI-powered voice assistant and the network of devices it cooperates with as a rich source of data used to improve the quality of recommendations and enhance customer satisfaction. By extension, if everything is on the same platform, they can offer a more seamless user experience.  But should a single entity have so much control?

In a November 2017 survey, Deloitte found that consumers are generally more cautious about smart home devices compared to online activities or even other categories of IoT. Forty percent of respondents said they felt smart home technology “reveals too much about their personal lives,” and nearly 40 percent said they did not feel properly informed about the security risks associated with connected home devices.  

At the end of the day, we are talking about a cheap microwave, but when voice eventually becomes the main interface in our homes, it will be harder to ignore the looming threat of potentially disastrous privacy violations when spoken conversations and physical movement are being recorded as part of the software layer.

An image of a microwave and a bowl of popcorn.
 

As smart speakers and connected devices continue to gain popularity, it’s clear that voice interaction is the next great leap forward in UX design. But how can we as designers help brands responsibly use Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri to reach audiences in the clearly private space of the home? If privacy is mostly about perception, we will need to find ways of building trust through absolute transparency, sharing with customers what personal data is being collected and how it is being used. Moreso, we will need to focus product design on giving customers control over their own information by adopting best practices like cookie disclaimers and GDPR compliance.  

There’s still a lot to figure out with voice-assisted interfaces, but if the development of IoT platforms follows the path of reinforcing trust, the next decade can hopefully avoid an erosion of privacy and instead bring about its restoration.

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