June 15, 2017 – Almost 50 years ago, the idea of a computerized interactive assistant was popularized by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 was a major character in the film and the fact that a computer could expertly recognize speech, interpret language, and play chess was pure science fiction at that time. After all, this was one year before Neil Armstrong took his famous "one small step." Today, we seem to have entered the era of the virtual assistant, with a number of services and products designed to allow us to play music, buy groceries, adjust our thermostat, or turn on the lights, all by a simple voice command.
Voice-activated virtual assistants first showed up on smartphones, with Apple's Siri first available in beta test on the iPhone 4S in 2011. Siri was followed by a number of competitors, including Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Samsung Voice to name a few. The number of virtual assistants in the marketplace today is actually somewhat extensive considering that only a handful are popularly known and in wide use.
Amazon's Echo speaker was the first device to widely bring the virtual assistant into a home setting. The device featured the speaker able to play music on command as well as a microphone able to accept voice commands. Amazon also integrated the Echo with its e-commerce business to allow orders to be placed based on a simple command. Google followed with Google Home smart speaker in 2016, and Apple recently announced HomePod, which provides access to Siri while, in the Apple way, is the most expensive option available to answer your inquiries or play music on command.
These home devices mostly answer search queries, provide limited personal assistance, such as reminders, calendar events, etc., interact with their producer's commercial services, and engage in various amounts of control over home automation. They are made possible by the extensive computational power, search engine heuristics, and developments in artificial intelligence that have accompanied the rise of services like Google's internet search technology and Amazon's online commerce. And the ubiquitous internet provided by our smart phones and home broadband/wireless service enable the access needed to support these services.
Of course, there may be a downside to placing too much trust and authority in a machine. In the case of the fictional HAL 9000, there was that pesky fact that the computer devised a way to kill most of the spaceship crew and refused to open the pod bay doors to allow the surviving astronaut back into the ship. Perhaps the worst that the Echo will do is subject you to Coldplay, but there are serious considerations around using these virtual assistants. One is privacy. These services work by transmitting a recording of your voice to their data center for analysis and response. As Apple states, "Innovative signal processing allows Siri to hear your requests from afar, even with the music playing at full blast." In other words, big sister is listening.
Amazon's Alexa seems to have the lead in integrating with home automation devices. There are a number of smart hubs, lighting devices, power outlets and switches, thermostats, and security cameras that are "Alexa enabled." This leads to a security concern. Each of those devices must communicate via a data network (usually Wi-Fi) to be remotely controlled. Every additional device on the internet is a potential tool for malicious "hackers". Last fall, hacked security cameras were the source of a major denial of service attack that hit many U.S. internet sites. (And remember that every time you ask Alexa to turn on the light, that command is transmitted to Amazon's data center for interpretation.) As more automation is added to the home, more care and attention will be required to ensure that a virtual window isn't being left open for others to exploit.
Perhaps in 10 more years, talking to our houses will be commonplace. However, the ultimate success of these technologies depends upon whether they can be used in a safe, reliable and private manner. I don't think we'd be as fond of electricity if there were an electrocution hazard every time we plugged in a lamp. The companies that produce these virtual assistant products and services need to consider the privacy and security issues rather than just relying on our thirst for convenience to drive adoption. Still, I can imagine an automated way to access the cabinet where my Apple devices are stored – "open the pod bay doors, Siri."