Who’s Listening? Apple Releases the HomePod

Apple ventured into the market foray of smart speakers today with the release of its HomePod – joining the ranks of, amongst others, Amazon Echo and Google Home. A smart speaker is actually more than just a ‘speaker’ – it’s a machine capable of engaging in somewhat intelligent dialogue with a user and with other devices. That machine is effectively a composite of a range of technologies manifested in a material form that enables it to seamlessly blend into the domestic environment in a relatively non-intrusive form – this family of smart speakers can blend into yours quite easily.

So, what is the impact of this and what does it mean? In a previous article I wrote about human-device interaction, and I’ll quote an extract of that here: “Recently, my two-year old niece Amila tried to talk to Alexa (Amazon Echo).  On the surface, this may not seem spectacular and it may even appear amusing (and it was).  However, we need to consider this further to really understand the force that is at play.  Amila cannot yet engage in human conversation – at best she can articulate baby-like sounds as she learns to speak and replicates words of the English language spoken by people around her – people that she learns from.  At the age of two, she is learning not only to speak with humans, but also with machines.  Her tutors are not only people, they are also smart devices.  If she is learning to talk to machines at the age of two, what will she be interacting with when she’s twenty-two?  What language will she be speaking?”  This change in behaviour that we are seeing, and will continue to see, is a result of ‘digital’ and the new wave of devices that are increasingly become an inherent part of our lives.

Consumerisation of smart devices such as Apple HomePod and its cousins signifies that we can now really talk to computers – a reality that was once an aspiration and a dream (some may say nightmare!) The ways in which we now interact with computers has changed dramatically – while the keyboard and screen persist, other forms of interaction include touch, motion, gestures, biometrics and of course voice. It is the affordance of these, however, that creates the real impact and value – it’s what you can do, and how you do it. Walking into a smart home for example and asking a smart speaker to turn on the lights & heating and play an obscure track that featured in your formative youth may sound simple, but it’s actually a transformative shift in the way that we do things – and this is the key point.

I’ve previously also alluded to the construction of our future in terms of devices and digital engagement and how – ‘smart’ has not only now become a prefix for ‘speaker’ but also for ‘home’, ‘city’ and ‘environment’. This digital ecosystem and its devices are altering the way that we function in our daily lives. Surely this is transformative impact? Of course, what goes with this is an element of risk. The more devices we connect into our smart-living matrix the more points of potential weakness and vulnerability we create.

The adoption and diffusion of smart speakers is likely to increase and the more we enjoy the spills of digital innovation and voice interaction the more we generate data that is fed into the finite state machine.  This fuels the voice services and engines that are constantly working behind the scenes, listening to what you say, decoding and recoding this, learning from what you say and increasing levels of artificial intelligence to provide better services. The associated question that might cross your mind amidst privacy concerns is, ‘Who’s listening?’

As we increasingly live through the ether of the Internet in digital form, we potentially also decrease the richness of real natural human dialogue and discourse. We already see people living through screens and perhaps we are now also seeing the dawn of an era in which we will literally start to talk to machines too.

Khawar Hameed is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing at Staffordshire University and a Digital Transformation Consultant