Why concerns about smart speakers are real

by Peter Griffin / 11 July, 2017

Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home.

They capture data and insights about us and will become irresistible to hackers.

Only one genuinely new product – the HomePod – emerged from Apple’s big new tech showcase.

By all accounts, the HomePod is a high-quality wireless speaker that gives the Sonos and Bose equivalents a run for their money and continues Apple’s love affair with music and minimalist design.

For many Apple buffs, that will be enough. But beneath the sleek white and grey body of HomePod lies an ambition to claim a place in our lounge rooms, with artificial intelligence and machine learning powering a smart speaker. In response to voice commands, it can tell you the weather forecast, play tunes from Apple Music and control other devices in your home.

The HomePod may be new for Apple, but the iPhone and Mac maker is again playing catch-up with its rivals. Amazon’s Echo was the first mass-market smart speaker to appear, in 2015, followed last year by Google Home.

Like the Echo, which is powered by Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, and the Google Assistant built into Google Home, the HomePod will include a voice-activated assistant – six-year-old Siri, available on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers – when it goes on sale in December.

But voice-activated virtual assistants have been slow to get off the ground in New Zealand. Our Kiwi accent is one of the harder ones for computers to interpret, and the complex integration between online services and voice controls means the Amazon Echo and Google Home are not officially on the market here yet.

For the past few months, I’ve been using the Echo Dot, a disc-shaped $50 device I bought in the US. It dispenses with the larger Echo’s speaker, instead plugging into your home stereo unit or TV sound bar.

It does a reasonable job of selecting my Spotify playlists on command and streaming Audible audio books and news clips from the BBC and CNN.

Checking my Google calendar or adding new appointments is a lot more fiddly, and I haven’t bothered with the home-automation features the Dot can perform – such as adjusting lighting or thermostat settings – which would require another level of integration and cost.

Although it is nice to sit on the couch and just say, “Alexa, play the Beatles”, to get an instant blast of the Fab Four, much of the time it’s easier to pick up your phone, browse and tap on the screen, connecting via Bluetooth to your wireless speaker.

Will this category of consumer electronics take off? The tech giants obviously think so, and research firm eMarketer predicts that 35 million Americans will use a voice-activated speaker at least once a month this year.

I think the smart home is a long way from becoming mainstream, especially here.

Let’s not kid ourselves – these smart speakers are not really about our convenience but capturing more data and insights about us as humans and consumers and channelling us to the various online services those tech companies control. That’s why Alexa made its debut and why Amazon made the Dot such a cheap device.

Concerns about voice-activated speakers listening in on and capturing our conversations are real. As they sit in our homes waiting for us to utter the magic word to stir them to life, they will become irresistible to hackers.

Security, therefore, is a major concern for the likes of Apple, which, through its HomeKit software, lets you control access to smart-home gadgets. This ensures communication between your gadgets and your iCloud account, which stores your data online, is encrypted.

Maybe smart speakers will one day become the default tool to order taxis, browse online stores and search the web. But first, we’ll have to get comfortable voicing our needs and wants to a computer, something I still struggle with.

Google Home is likely to be the first smart speaker entrant here later in the year, followed by Apple early in 2018, and the Echo should get a look-in as Amazon expands its retail empire in Australia.

Apple HomePod US$349 ($485)

Google Home US$109 ($150)

Amazon Echo US$50-$230 ($70-$320)

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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