Amazon’s Echo seems great, but what does it hear? | John Naughton

The voice-controlled home assistant working for you, but on the other hand it is a networked listening device, with wider implications

A few weeks ago, I bought Amazons latest thingamajig the Echo. Its a voice-activated, networked device equipped with a seven-piece microphone array, which means that it can pick up ones voice from anywhere in its proximity with impressive accuracy. It comes in two versions, one a 9.25 in-tall cylinder that contains a number of speakers, the other a much smaller cylinder that merely has tinny speakers. Since the latter was a third of the price of the former, your cheapskate columnist bought that and hooked it up to his hi-fi system, which means that when he speaks to it the Echo replies in sultry female tones modulated by a high-end analogue amplifier and a pair of very fine speakers. Her name, by the way, is Alexa.

I bought it because it seemed to me that it might be a significant product and I have a policy of never used to describe kit that I havent paid for myself. Having lived with the Echo for a few weeks I can definitely confirm its significance. It is a big deal, which explains why the company expended so much in it.( Its used to say 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which voices implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhones camera alone ). Amazons boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it( he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product however represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to ones wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger term, Alexa. So initially one feels like an moron telling things such as: Alexa, play Radio 4 or: Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?( A genuine investigation this, from a visitor who didnt know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry .)

For new users, the devices most remarkable feature is its remarkably low latency the gap between issuing a command and get a reply which seems to be around a second. And of course theres a lot it doesnt know or gets wrong. A request to play the most recent episode of the Serial podcast comes up with the Serial Serial podcast, which, in a nice postmodern touch, is a podcast about the famous Serial podcast. But because the cloud-computing engine behind the Echo employs machine learning, these glitches will be reduced as more people use the device.

The Echo looks like a really significant product for two reasons. First, its target market is the home, which, as Ben Thompson, an astute observer of the tech industry, writes was the one place in the entire world where smartphones were not inevitably the most convenient device or touch the easiest input method: more often than not your smartphone is charge and talking to a device doesnt carry the social luggage it might elsewhere.

Second, the Echo fits into an existing, fast-growing ecosystem: that of domestic networked devices in the so-called Internet of Things( IoT ). But at the moment, most manufacturers insist that IoT devices are controlled by smartphones, which are clumsy in a domestic environment. Amazon has shrewdly constructed an interface that stimulates it easy to link the Echo to these devices and services. So you can connect it to your online diary and ask: Whats in my calendar for tomorrow? And this ecosystem strategy is already be paid by: at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, many of the products on display were controllable by the Echo. So, in a way, Amazon may have invented what Ben Thompson calls the operating system for the home.

As with most technological breakthroughs, the Echo is both wonderful and scary. It shows that voice interfaces can really work and not be an embarrassing pain to utilize. On the other hand, it brings a networked listening device into the heart of the home, with appalling implications for misuse. Amazon tries to dodge this issue by saying that the Echo is always listening, but not recording: it merely starts transmitting data to the cloud after it hears the trigger term Alexa.

Some police forces in the US clearly doubt that. The cops in Bentonville, Arkansas, for example, have issued a warrant necessitating Amazon to hand over any audio or records from an Echo belonging to a guy who is set to go to trial next year for the assassination of a friend. The police are after any audio the speaker may have picked up on the night of the assassination because while the Echo is activated by certain terms, its not uncommon for the IoT gadget to be alerted to listen by accident.

So Kranzbergs First Law applies: technology is neither good nor bad, but it surely isnt neutral either.

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