The Internet of Things – the wireless technology that links household objects and tasks to deliver a seamless, and more convenient, user experience – was significantly widened with the introduction of the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap smart home controllers, all of which are powered by an omnipotent demigod called Alexa.
What is the Internet of Things?
The Echo range - alongside rivals such as Google Home and other, less well-known, brands including ivee and Mycroft - uses verbal commands to stream music, order goods, search the Internet, and control smart home devices including CCTV cameras and alarms.
It is, its devotees insist, powered by magic, benevolence, and an unfeasibly large dose of Nobel-prize winning levels of intelligence and intuition. Or, if you listen to the sceptics, by cynicism, exploitation, and more than usually high levels of public gullibility.
So, tell help you sort the wheat from the chaff, here are five reasons to buy one – along with five reasons not to…
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The Amazon Echo uses a clever system of microphones to listen to your commands; sophisticated voice-recognition software then interprets your instructions and delivers the results. So, if you’re wondering what the weather forecast is for tomorrow, the question: “Alexa, what will the weather be like tomorrow?” will deliver the results. Or you can ask her to order the latest Bruce Springsteen album, delivering it wirelessly to your iPhone or iPod.
But there have also been stories of that convenience turning out to be not quite so handy, with some consumers reporting unauthorised purchases after Alexa interpreted a conversation as an instruction.
Possibly the funniest example comes from the United States, where a TV reporter’s comment: “Alexa, order me a dollhouse” triggered a series of unauthorised purchases of the same item across the country as Alexa listened in to the evening news.
Amazon says that accidental ordering is almost impossible, but does give users the option to change the wake-up word and to add a PIN number to the ordering process.
5 ways the Internet of Things affects you
Anyone with limited mobility, whether by virtue of age, disability, illness, or just plain laziness, will appreciate the ability to control the TV and Internet, or to conduct online shopping and raise the alarm in an emergency without having to do anything other than speak.
To be able to activate services, obtain advice and information, and buy goods in this way is a genuine boon for many people, offering a lifeline and a level of independence that simply wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. If you’ve used Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant on your iPhone, the concept will be familiar to you.
As will the drawbacks; while voice recognition software is getting cleverer and more accurate by the month, it still has a long way to go to deliver accurate results all the time. While you can ‘train’ Echo and its rivals in how to more accurately interpret your own voice and accent, users report confusion, especially with homophones (words that sound the same but mean something different; sweet and suite, or bean and been, for example).
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Amazon’s Echo, as well as most of its competitor devices, never sleeps; while you activate it by saying the word ‘Alexa’ (other key words can be programmed in), it is always listening in the background.
This, combined with clever algorithms and voice-recognition software, also enables it to identify who is in the house by analysing things like the cadence of footsteps, what music is being played, or, of course, by the voices it hears.
This almost supernatural ability to listen and interpret the atmosphere in which it sits could be a real help in assisting the emergency services to understand who is in the house and what help they might need.
It can also be used against you; while Amazon does resist law enforcement demands to release the recordings that Alexa uploads without a court-ordered warrant, no system is completely safe and it’s only a matter of time before it’s hacked and your most private conversations and relationships are put at risk.
(If that worries you, you’ll be horrified to hear that some gaming consoles have a video camera running all the time too…)
Is your car spying on you?
While the majority of the Internet is free at the point of use, it does have to be paid for somehow, which means that adverts are not only a necessary evil, but that they’re here to stay.
However, a random, scattergun approach is worse than useless because it risks alienating potential customers without generating sales. This is where targeted advertising comes in; by tailoring the adverts you see, businesses can focus their resources on those consumers that might actually want to read about, and then buy, their latest widget.
So, they need to collect data on the sort of person you are: what you like doing, where you eat and shop, and how much money you have – and being able to listen in on your private conversations would give them a huge competitive advantage.
Which is exactly what some users are reporting after being bombarded with adverts for products they’ve only ever expressed an interest in during a conversation. There was no Google history, Amazon searches, or other digital trail for Alexa to follow, just what they thought was a private conversation.
Of course, if this helps you buy better, cheaper, more useful gizmos then you might not mind, and if you do mind you can always delete conversations in the app, even if doing so “may degrade your Alexa experience” according to Amazon.
Or, you could just mute the microphone and stop her listening but that does rely on remembering to do so - and then remembering to turn it back on again. After all, an Echo with the microphone turned off is just a dumb chunk of plastic and metal.
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The Internet of Things (IoT) is an amazing concept and one that Alexa is tailored to exploit. With the right products and programming you could, for example, use Alexa to operate a remote-controlled vacuum cleaner, order an Uber taxi to take you to the doctor, turn on a security camera and lights, raise or lower the temperature in your home, and raise the alarm in an emergency. It is indeed a truly wonderful time to be alive.
Yet the IoT is not without its dangers. Hacking is technically feasible, enabling computer experts to take control of those same items remotely, effectively hijacking your home. The possibilities are limited only by their imagination and the consequences could easily be serious, or even fatal.
Of course, the likelihood of a hacker targeting you is remote and the benefits in terms of convenience and independence might far outweigh the risk for you - if so, you can buy the Amazon Echo from (unsurprisingly) Amazon for £149.99.
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