Are we too trustworthy of Google and Amazon’s smart speakers?

Corporations are just as vulnerable to the complexity of trust as people are. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon all must broker trust through their services, their public figures, and the things they create. As I said last week:

A good relationship is built on trust. I don’t have to remind you of all the trust you put in Gmail to send your correspondence, iCloud to secure your precious photos, or Amazon to take care of your purchases. The problem, though, is that our trustworthy relationships are breeding dependence. We’re becoming extremely reliant in a very unhealthy, dangerous way.

Thoughts on our relationship with technology

What I didn’t touch on is how smart speakers are complicating things. They are built with all the qualities of an active listener and are building trust in the same way that a psychologist, a pastor, or a teacher would build trust – through an open ear. That’s literally all that smart speakers are right now… an open ear that occasionally helps out. Nearly a quarter of all US households have already fallen for this ploy of trust and installed a smart speaker.

In reality, we have no reason to trust Amazon or Google with their smart speakers. Especially considering a month ago the world realized that Amazon Alexa has its “training” done by humans who listen to audio from users’ homes and offices without their knowledge.

You don’t necessarily think of another human listening to what you’re telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home. I think we’ve been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning.

Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.

Matt Day, Bloomberg

Bloomberg’s article was written very much in the tone of an Amazon press release as if to say, “nothing to see here, folks, let’s keep it moving”. Personally, Violet Blue’s article on this story way more in-line with how outraged we should be, realizing that this is surveillance capitalism. In the piece, she poses the question:

Where do you go when you want to escape surveillance? When you want to stop feeling like you might be being listened to by microphones, or watched through surveillance cameras, or tracked by invisible tech gremlins burrowed within devices.

Violet Blue, Engadget

Surveillance capitalism, commercialization of listening… whatever you want to call it, we are definitely in the thick of it. And I don’t think any of us want to look back ten years from now and wish we hadn’t bought those pesky Alexa devices when they were on sale.

It’s hard for me to lean one way or another on this topic. Because while I’m filled with angst over the surveillance side of things, I’m simultaneously ultra-fascinated by these voice platforms and the challenge of creating a useful voice skill.

I don’t think anyone has a definite answer here. And anyone who does is probably not thinking much about the other side of the argument.

This is why I’m sitting down with the CEO of VoiceFlow – a tool that makes it easy for anyone to create voice apps – for a Digital Hangout on this topic which you’re invited to. It’s on May 15th at 6pm CST. You can reserve your seat by clicking the link below:

Reserve your seat