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CES 2017

That Smart Home Device Can Hear You Now

“Tomorrow belongs to those who hear it coming,” David Bowie once opined. Who knew that this axiom would one day apply to home bots?

Talking to your appliances used to get you thrown into a loony bin. Today, you’re no longer with it if you won’t ask your bot to dim the lights and play Beyoncé. Voice-recognition technology has improved so dramatically that a voice-enabled, smart home device can control nearly everything on your home network, including things you’re yet to add such as your lights, garage doors, thermostat, security cam and media.

Meet the brave new world of 2017 where a device that you plug into your home is listening to everything you say and streaming instructions to and from the cloud. If this innovation makes it easier to order an Uber or a pizza, remind you to exercise, or even read your email aloud, what’s not to like? Well, you might say, that depends upon your views about trading privacy for convenience.

Either way, this is not your run of the mill, incremental change. Almost overnight it seems, the voice-enabled user interface—VUI—has become computing’s center of gravity. The market for “voice-activated digital assistants is set to double” this year, said Shawn DuBravac, Chief Economist, Consumer Technology Association. At CES, DuBravac hailed “the new voice of computing” as a paradigm shift. He pegged the red-hot “smart home market” at $25 billion this year. These two mega-trends, smart home networks and voice-enabled computing, have become inextricably linked, at least for now.

What Have We Bot?

So far, Apple and Microsoft, the companies that brought us countless personal computing innovations have been mere role players in this breakthrough. In their place, Google has made voice recognition and voice synthesis strides with its Google Home device and software, but the lion’s share of market interest has gone to Amazon for its Alexa software and Echo device. Amazon, which introduced the Echo in November 2014, has jumped out to a significant lead in the smart home market by establishing an ecosystem that enables thousands of third-parties such as Fandango, Domino’s or LG to create “skills” (added capabilities and controls) that give Echo customers useful things to order or do. Both systems utilize forms of artificial intelligence to adapt to your interests.

Not surprisingly, Amazon execs tout that “voice is the next major disruption in computing,” said Charlie Kindel, Director of Alexa Smart Home, from a podium at CES last week. When you consider the myriad of advancements that make this possible, he said, “It comes down to innovations in speech understanding.”


Yet, it is early days for this technology, which some have derided as wisecracking bots that fail to distinguish adult from child when the latter orders all kinds of twinkly products on Amazon. Still, many people like the idea of a personal digital assistant, and will put up with ‘little wrinkles’ while Google and Amazon (among many others) strive to improve this technology.

One of those little wrinkles that may come with this fledgling cyber territory is called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. In October, a massive DDoS attack that utilized Internet of Things (IoT) nodes including home devices was attributed with shutting down Twitter, Netflix and various other publishing sites. All of which underscores the fact that your home router is no obstacle for serious hackers.

Wisdom of Smart Homes

There’s little doubt that one day we may all welcome a wisecracking digital companion into our lives, especially if they can get it to sound like Groucho Marx and protect us from hackers. Yet, from a privacy perspective, the (nearly) always-on microphone that listens for keywords (but what happens to everything it hears?) is not going to appeal to everyone. Trust will take time to develop.

“The bar is very high,” said Rishi Chandra VP of Product Management Google Home, at CES. “It is easy to walk and go turn off a light switch. There has to be enough value that when you see it there has to be (a reason) to do it.”

Paradoxically, inertia may help advance this cause. Carly Chaikin, an actress who plays Darlene, a hacker on a TV series called Mr. Robot, told a CES crowd that, “Alexa is like my best friend. I’m a very lazy human being. I don’t have to get up to change the temperature.”

Where is all of this technology headed? It’s intended to get smarter. “The smart home will start to anticipate things we need,” said Mike George, VP Echo, Alexa and Apps, Amazon. “Some of the things that are simple like replacing light bulbs will seem like magic to the 90% of people who haven’t experienced this.”

Let’s see what happens when I ask Alexa to end this story.

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