When Philip Goodridge watches The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, his living room is awash in red. For horror film The Ring, he prefers turquoise. On New Year’s Eve, his piano room glows a cool winter blue.
Lighting is just one of the things the St. John’s actor can control via smart speakers throughout his home. Mr. Goodridge and his husband have an Amazon Echo in their kitchen and adjoining living room and Echo Dots in their den, piano room and bedroom. These smart speakers enable them to control Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, by voice.
Besides customizing the lighting for specific movies, TV shows and parties, the couple uses their smart speakers for music, news and weather forecasts.
“Maybe I could live without them, but the joy and ease I get from them is awesome,” Mr. Goodridge says. “I’m listening to music way more often than I used to, because I can go anywhere in the house and say, ‘Alexa, shuffle Madonna,’ and she plays Madonna.”
Mr. Goodridge isn’t alone in his fondness for voice activation. Since the introduction of the Amazon Echo in 2014, the popularity of smart speakers has taken off, with products like Google Home and Apple HomePod gaining momentum in recent years. New York-based market research firm eMarketer reports that the biggest users of smart speakers are China (with 85.5 million smart speaker users in 2019) and the U.S. (with 74.2 million users). Here in Canada, 5.8 million people use smart speakers, or 18.2 per cent of the country’s total Internet users.
But as concerns about privacy have become more widespread, potential consumers may be asking: Do I really need a smart speaker in my life?
Toronto-based writer and “technology evangelist” Marc Saltzman says there are three main benefits for voice-activated smart speakers.
“Number one, they’re incredibly intuitive. There’s nothing more natural than using your own voice when interfacing with technology,” he says.
People can use smart speakers to set timers or reminders, do Internet searches or check their calendar. When combined with additional software and devices, smart speakers can be used to control home functions by voice, like locking doors or turning lights on and off. Users can also shop online by voice.
“The second benefit of a smart speaker is the price,” Mr. Saltzman says. “They’re as low as fifty bucks for a Dot or Google Mini, and they often drop below that price on [days like] Black Friday.”
Mr. Saltzman says the third benefit of smart speakers is the artificial intelligence embedded into these devices.
“They actually learn how you talk,” he says. “They get better the more you use them. Convenience is the key.”
When it comes to smart speakers and privacy, Mr. Saltzman says that in his view, there are legitimate concerns. For example, he notes that Google and Amazon tell customers that the device starts listening when they say the “wake” word (“Hey Google” or “Alexa”).
“But in order to be able to recognize the wake word, they must be listening already,” he says.
Bloomberg reported in April that Amazon had thousands of workers listening to and transcribing Alexa audio requests in order to improve the software. They also reported that similar processes were in place for Google’s assistant and Apple’s Siri. Amazon has since announced changes to its terms that let users opt out of human review of their requests, while Apple and Google both suspended their programs.
In response to mounting privacy and cybersecurity concerns, brands are emerging to provide security enhancements, says Shelby Walsh, president of Toronto-based market research firm Trend Hunter.
“Consumers really want to know that their information and data is being protected, or is being used in a way they’ve agreed to,” she says.
She points to Project Alias, a device that attaches to the top of a Google Home or Alexa. The device creates a kind of “white noise” that prevents the smart speaker from passively listening to a user’s conversations. When a user says a custom wake word, the Project Alias device activates the smart speaker, then turns the white noise back on when the user is done.
“Changing the wake word means you have more control over your device’s ability to listen in on conversations, and [you can] prevent more information from being sent to [the company’s] main server,” Ms. Walsh says.
Other concerns about smart speakers go beyond privacy issues. Dr. Randy Connolly is a professor of technology and society studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and one of his concerns is that this kind of technology creates friction-less consumption.
“Amazon is all about making buying things as friction-free as possible,” Dr. Connolly says. “What Alexa does is it short circuits the process of reflection and responsibility that stands between you going, ‘Ooh, I think I want one of these,’ and actually fulfilling that.”
While most people don’t use smart speakers to shop yet, eMarketer predicts that by 2021, 38 million, or four in 10 U.S. smart speaker users, will be taking advantage of shopping by voice.
Dr. Connolly notes that it usually takes time and consideration to buy something. The ability to blurt out what you want in your home and immediately have it ordered takes that time of reflection away.
“[Smart speakers] turn consumption into an unnoticed component of reality,” he says. “And I don’t think we really want that.”