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Amazon Echo – fad or the future?

Amazon Echo Home

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?

Comments
Member

Apple’s doing the same with a combination of Siri and their Homekit. Looks promising and we’re still a way off from anything remotely approaching true AI, yet. Still, quite fancy being able to call for a cuppa and have it delivered to the arm chair. Just hope it remembers to put the milk in first…

Member

I have something at home that runs on food, water and love and he brings be a cuppa (sometimes forgets to put a wee bit sugar in) when I call for him. Vice versa. :o)

Member

I do use home automation to a fair extent, but nothing, thus far, remotely. The bed is heated automatically dependent on the weather conditions, lights turn on and off at a gesture and we can turn the Air con on or off from anywhere in the house. But the software is still pretty stupid. Everything has to be programmed one way or another, and even Siri is so limited that to talk of AI is laughable. But it still makes life easier, I suppose, and for me, anyway, the only concern is that if I were to use the remote features I could never be totally happy that the system hadn’t decided to incinerate the cat. Although that would take the guesswork out of supper that night.

Member

Meowch. These things are all very well, but do we really need them? What in domestic life, at present, needs automating more than it already is? If this technology leads to useful advances that save energy, help the disabled or produce products that serve a genuine purpose rather than the niche market, then this research is good because it leads to a better life. I’d rather see the development of batteries that give true portable power and don’t need hours to recharge; the development of the hydrogen cell for domestic use; safe banking and stress free transport. Technological research needs to have a purpose and an application. Steam was seen to be useful in many fields as was electricity, various new building materials etc, etc. Invented because the need was there to be satisfied. By all means dream of the future but let there be some purpose in those dreams.

Member

There is another side to this and that is all of those voice transmissions through the web are being gathered as we speak in the US to use in an addition to the FBI/CIA data base for criminal/terrorist / and even scrutiny of the public , and –yes – as you though some ingenious hacker has hacked it already as well as using your mike + camera +, other hardware as Bots in attacking websites in DDoS attacks thats how Krebs was taken out. Nearly 1TG worth of attacks .

Member

Initial (kneejerk) reaction to the convo subject: “Alexa, do I have a brain? Alexa, can I get up off my a**e and do things for myself?”.

Second reaction, what a fantastic thing for some disabilities, a life changer!

Third, starter for 10: define intelligence.

Member

Leave the tricky one for last, eh? 🙂

Member

The ability to understand /reason /and arrive at a logical/practical solution.

Member

Thanks, Duncan. That cuts me out then.

Member

Keep it up John your better than any medicine on the market.

Member

“Over recent years, smart home technology has become more and more common.” Really? I’m quite prepared to be wrong, but I would have thought “slightly less uncommon” might be a better description?

Gizmos and gadgets to do things for us always catch on to some degree as grown ups toys, but I wonder how many of us make proper use of them once the novelty has worn off.

Like Sophie I applaud an innovation that can help people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. There was an interesting topic on tv this morning about software that enables vision-impaired people to navigate websites, with text converted into sound and images magnified. Some sites do this better than others.

When, it is alleged, many are incapable of working out an energy bill, cannot deal with our own finances, fall for fraudulent offers, perhaps developing technology to teach us how to deal with every day life might be a higher priority. A bit of real intelligence is what we seem to need, not artificial (I hasten to add I do not believe the majority of us are as dumb as some would have us believe; lazy, underconfident, but quite capable if we, as Sophie so eloquently puts it, “get up off my *rs* and do things for myself”.

What have I missed about “smart clothes pegs, incidentally? Must get some of those. 🙂

Member

I wonder if they hang the washing out for you? Or just make wisecracks about the quality of the softener used, perhaps?

Member

A set of smart clothes pegs would take the washing in when it starts raining. Not really a practical solution I suppose as someone would have to open the door for them.

Member

John, the smart clothes pegs would talk to the smart door, no problem 🙂

Member

Yes, they’d be a burglar’s gift if left on the line wouldn’t they?

Member

These smart things aren’t as smart as they think they are.

Member

I picked up my new real smart phone yesterday, a Samsung that is capable of connecting to everything bar the kitchen sink by all accounts. Will I being controlling my washing machine from my phone? I don’t think so, much easier and probably quicker to walk to the kitchen to operate it.

So I picked it up yesterday afternoon, charged it and spent a couple of hours setting it up. By this morning, it had used up 40% of the battery. A quick google and I found a few things to turn off but the battery is now down to 45%, 15% gone just sitting there and I haven’t had time to try it out on the internet or make phone calls on it. Hmmmph 🙁

Security and privacy are a joke. You don’t seem to be able to do anything on it without some sort of tracking, so no privacy. You also don’t seem to be able to do anything unless you log in to different things, all with different ids and passwords. I have never had a password on a mobile before as I didn’t need one. I lost count of the number of accounts and passwords I set up yesterday. Verified by Visa has a new level called Barclaycard Secure that wouldn’t accept my details but when I went back to retry, said I had completed the procedure, so goodness only knows which details I tried it accepted !!! Samsung won’t let you have any 3 digits or numbers in a row so my password format is $crewed. I will forever be sending requests for my forgotten passwords.

Now to transfer Symbian to Android, plenty of help on the internet for that but I think I will wait until tomorrow.

Member

Alfa – I have never come across so many apps tracking you unless you are talking about Win 10. At least you can turn them off in Samsung .

Member

I’m sure I will get the hang of it, just don’t have a lot of spare time at the moment. I seem to have done a lot of disagreeing with it as I’m not sure what I would be agreeing to every time it asks. It keeps wanting me to agree to my location so it can give me the weather!!!

Battery now down to 36% now after a phone call. 🙁 I think I’ll let it run right down before I charge it again.

Member

And 12 hours later overnight, sitting there doing nothing, the battery is down to 11%. 🙁

Not what I expect from a brand new phone. The battery on my 7 year old Nokia 5800 is better than this.

Member

There is a webpage listing all the apps you have to disable Alfa ,many run in the background , it gives you a run down on the programming and step by step on how to stop your Samsung battery from running down quick. Its a bit devious in its actions to keep an “eye ” on you.

Member

I disabled a few yesterday including syncing emails, didn’t agree to geo location, but it looks there are more to go.
Down another 2% in 24 minutes. Now 9% battery.
Now reports 8% left, 4hrs 23 mins remaining.

I bought this phone sim-free so it shouldn’t have too much bloatware.

Member

Hi all, thanks for your comments about the Amazon Echo and home automation in general. Over the weekend, I was able to try one out and you can read about my experience with it on the Tech Daily blog here: https://blogs.which.co.uk/technology/audio-2/amazon-echo-first-look-review-my-weekend-with-alexa/

Generally, I thought it wasn’t as smart as a lot of people might expect. But it’s an interesting product – with both positives and negatives – and the technology will only improve over time. Plus with Google now releasing their own version yesterday and Apple likely to enter the market at some point, there will be hot competition between three of the most influential and powerful tech companies in the world. Whether there’s a demand for it or not, it seems voice-controlled home automation is upon us.

Member

Apple has introduced the Homekit app in the latest versions of both iOS and OSX and Siri seems signifcantly more effective than you seem to have found the Echo. Apple. however, always waits; contrary to popular belief it rarely. if ever, introduces a brand new technology, preferring to enter the market with the winner when it’s fairly clear how things are going. And the Apple watch proves they don’t get it right all the time .

Member

And presumably Samsung won’t be left standing so they will offer a similar product. It will be interesting to see whether demand will grow in the UK where the uncertain economic situation and the difficulty that the target generation are having in purchasing a home of their own are inhibiting factors. The situation in the rest of Europe is not much better so the power of the North American market will be the main driving force plus parts of the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and the more developed parts of Asia. If sales are spread across four or more companies the development and improvement of the technology might not be as rapid as hoped for, but with some of the wealthiest companies in the world behind it they will probably pour money into gaining market share and eventual dominance for their version.

I am intrigued to know how the system copes in a multi-cultural country like the UK where there are diverse speech characteristics even in the English language.

I think developments like this offer a better future for disabled people and those who suffer from manipulation difficulties so long as they are affordable. For too long manufacturers of domestic appliances and equipment have been ignoring their needs with ever more intricate control devices and programming methods that pay more attention to stylish appearance than to functionality. Operating a television is now virtually impossible for anyone with advanced arthritis in the hands or several other conditions.

Member

I am 74, have an Amazon Echo and I love it, excellent for playing music when particularly when my hands are full doing something else, maintaining shopping lists and to do items(and providing them also on my smartphone), playing radio “Alexa play BBC radio 4” and answering questions. I would hate to be without it.