It’s a sci-fi fan’s dream, isn’t it? Having a computer than can talk and do things seemingly beyond the power of its small microchip within – like a flatmate without the extra mess.
But artificial intelligence is a topic that has repeatedly struck fear into audiences, me included. Portrayed as close to human – be that in appearance or in behaviour – but still quite obviously inhuman, it often falls into the so-called ‘uncanny valley’, within which the near-human likeness gives an eerie sense of trepidation.
What is the Amazon Echo?
Alexa – the name of Amazon’s ‘assistant’ within their new Echo product – is of course still a long way from HAL 9000, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it seems to be a tentative step towards complete home automation.
Much like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, Alexa can respond to simple questions – ‘Alexa, what time is it?’ and ‘Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?’, for instance. But as well as being a voice-activated Bluetooth speaker, if you also buy compatible light bulbs and plug adaptors, you can turn things on and off by simply asking Alexa to do it. It (or is Alexa a ‘she’?) can also order you a taxi and even a takeaway.
A ‘smarter’ home
Over recent years, smart home technology has become more and more common. From smart locks to smart fridges (and even smart clothes pegs), there’s a never ending list of gadgets and gizmos intended to make home life easier.
For me, I think the novelty of turning on and off the lights with my voice would wear off fairly quickly. However, customer reviews from the US have indicated that the Amazon Echo has been great for disabled relatives, who may have otherwise struggled with the dexterity required for the buttons and dials now needed around the modern home.
It seems, however, that the same concerns surround these products, namely security and privacy.
Amazon insists that the Echo doesn’t record any conversations and is only activated once it hears the word ‘Alexa’. Any question not preceded with the ‘Alexa’ will fall on deaf ears. It’s also important to note that, to our knowledge, no breaches of privacy have been reported since its release in the States.
I’ve grown up in a generation who are lackadaisical with personal data. Whether it’s where I was yesterday evening logged on my maps app or companies using cookies to track when I visit their websites.
Many with a similar attitude to me will not be too fussed about having Alexa in their home. But there’s no doubt that a technology that’s ‘always listening’ will unnerve some customers.
So what do you think to the Echo? Will you be making your home smarter?