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

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

A few weeks ago, I bought Amazon’s latest gizmo – the Echo. It’s a voice-activated, networked device equipped with a seven-piece microphone array, which means that it can pick up one’s voice from anywhere in its vicinity with impressive accuracy. It comes in two versions, one a 9.25in-tall cylinder that contains a number of speakers, the other a much smaller cylinder that just 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 writing about kit that I haven’t 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 invested so much in it. (It’s said that 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which sounds implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhone’s camera alone). Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it (he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product nevertheless represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to one’s wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger word, “Alexa”. So initially one feels like an idiot saying things such as: “Alexa, play Radio 4” or: “Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?” (A genuine inquiry this, from a visitor who didn’t know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry.)

For new users, the device’s most remarkable feature is its remarkably low latency – the gap between issuing a command and getting a response – which seems to be around a second. And of course there’s a lot it doesn’t know or gets wrong. A request to “play the latest 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 uses 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 necessarily the most convenient device or touch the easiest input method: more often than not your smartphone is charging and talking to a device doesn’t carry the social baggage 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 makes it easy to link the Echo to these devices and services. So you can link it to your online diary and ask: “What’s in my calendar for tomorrow?” And this ecosystem strategy is already paying off: 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 use. 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 only starts transmitting data to the cloud after it hears the trigger word “Alexa”.

Some police forces in the US clearly doubt that. The cops in Bentonville, Arkansas, for example, have issued a warrant requiring 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 murder of a friend. The police are after any audio the speaker may have picked up on the night of the murder because while “the Echo is activated by certain words, it’s not uncommon for the IoT gadget to be alerted to listen by accident”.

So Kranzberg’s First Law applies: technology is neither good nor bad, but it certainly isn’t neutral either.


John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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