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

Happy 10th Birthday iPhone!

The iPhone is 10 years old!  June 29th 2017 marked the tenth anniversary of what has become a 21st century icon and the apple of Apple’s eye.  Beyond its luring magnetic draw as an object of desire and its smart functional capability (yes – there’s an app for everything), the iPhone is a symbol of digital liberation.  The freedom from the wired and tethered world is a natural function – the true affordance is the capability and empowerment that this brings: the fluidity and ease with which we access and navigate the digital ecosystem and how we have come to live and behave in context of this.  The world is at our fingertips and in our hands.  The push-pull relationship and deterministic nature of technology is one of debate – have we reached a point where we have become entirely dependent on, and perhaps even addicted to our smartphones and other devices?  Would you relinquish your smartphone for even 24 hours? Perhaps reflect on this, and the reasons for your answer.

The ubiquity of connections and the penetration of smartphones is no less than phenomenal.   According to the GSMA ‘The Mobile Economy 2017’ report there were 4.8 billion unique mobile subscribers in 2016 – projected to rise to 5.8 billion by 2020.  In terms of SIM connections, these were reported at 7.9 billion in 2016 – projected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2020.  To put this in context there are, according to a range of sources, over 7.3 billion people on the planet.  In other words, there are more connections than people.  The mobile industry is one of the most disruptive forces that we have ever seen – not only technologically, but also in terms of the societal impact at all levels: individual, group, community, region & country and in personal, social and corporate contexts.  ‘Mobility’ has become firmly entrenched in virtually all aspects of our lives.  Devices and the construction of our future in terms of physical and virtual environmental infrastructure and the way in which we digitally engage with this are also intrinsically related – ‘smart’ has not only become a prefix for ‘phone’ but also for ‘home’, ‘city’ and ‘environment’.

Smartphones and ‘mobility’ have changed or created new behaviours, language and even laws – ranging from the urban pat-down digital dance ritual before leaving the house: tapping parts of your apparel and body to ensure that you have your phone, keys and wallet/purse, thru 2 new sms & txt spk lol! and legislation that governs the usage of handsets in vehicles.  They have influenced the creation of new models of interaction and the creation or disruption of markets – look to mobile banking, contactless payment systems, transport (e.g. UBER), social media and gaming for examples.

It’s also important to reflect on and understand the role that we play as consumers of the technologies.  On one hand, we are exactly that: consumers.  On the other hand, we are the creators and generators of data: stats relating to app usage, network usage, our location through geocoded data, the length of time we spend on calls, who we call, fitness data, health data – the list goes on.  We are an inherent part of the mobile ecosystem that is fuelling the innovation.  We are generating big data, and at the risk of politicising the matter – the democratisation of digital, paradoxically, has created an ecosystem where the digital proletariat are feeding the digital bourgeoisie.  From a more cultural perspective, we are recording the world in a manner that has never been recorded before with our smartphones – creating a digital multi-dimensional imprint of 21st century earth.

At Staffordshire University, we’re proud to have a history in Mobile Computing.  In 2001 we created what was then reported as the first BSc Mobile Computing degree in the UK.  Since then we have been agile and moved with the industry to keep abreast of developments in the mobile ecosystem.  Aspects of mobile computing are taught across modules at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  We have dedicated mobile app development laboratories in the Department of Computing in Stoke-on-Trent, and we teach iOS, Android & Microsoft app development.  Many of our students produce excellent final year dissertations in this subject area.

I’ll end this article, with a quote from Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google (extracted from the GSMA 2017 report): “The last 10 years have been about building a world that is mobile-first, turning our phones into remote controls for our lives. But in the next 10 years, we will shift to a world that is AI-first, a world where computing becomes universally available.”

Happy 10th Birthday iPhone!

Khawar Hameed is a Senior Lecturer/Academic in the Department of Computing, School of Computing & Digital Technologies, Staffordshire University, UK. @K_Hameed

Apple Says ‘No’ – The Threat to Data Security

Consider a world where your fundamental existence is enabled and underpinned by an array of connected devices and systems, and the totality of your life and virtually every aspect of what you do is reliant on these devices and systems.  Consider a future where you live in smart cities and environments and your future urban life is constructed from interacting digital systems that provide the core functionality for your every day common activities and behavior – such as how and what you buy via online shopping, or where you go using intelligent transport systems, or what services you consume – such as healthcare.  Consider your own home, digitally alive and connected to the ether of the Internet via your high-speed broadband and the laptop, tablet, and all your other screens through which you immerse yourself into the virtual world – your connected smart TV, the smartphone in your hand – without which you would cease to function, and the webcam looking at you right now from the top of your screen.  Now consider this – that every aspect of your digital life – your existence as a digital native, your entire digital footprint created through your interaction with devices and systems – what you buy, where you go (in reality and virtually), who you talk to, what you watch – and who’s watching you, plus a great deal more including your online banking might be accessible by cybercriminals and government agencies.  How would you feel?  Shocked, to say the least.

That world is, effectively, the world that we live in today and we are starting to live that future as we transform into digital citizens living in a connected environment – one where digital capital will grow as technologies and systems such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) proliferate and become a ubiquitous and seamless aspect of life.  Beyond the individual digital footprint, there’s also the aspect of Big Data – massive data sets that are generated as a consequence of interactions and which provide the basis for analytics and intelligence at a macro level.

Security is therefore key.  It’s one aspect that we expect and rely on to protect our digital assets and our digital lives.  Beyond the specific and significant technical aspects of implementation, it’s an enabler – it enables us to engage with and interact with the digital ecosystem with confidence, leveraging the full affordances of such a system to live contemporary lives without fear and constraint – in education, business, leisure & entertainment, healthcare, and across private and public sectors.

However, we face a challenge – that of the use of digital capital and infrastructure for nefarious purposes.  Security provides a cloak, and perhaps protection, for perpetrators of crime.  On one hand, the principle and practice of security and protection is central to current and evolving digital engagement.  On the other hand, it is this very aspect that can be employed to conduct illicit activities, with devastating impact.

So the question arises: should Governments be able to wield and exercise power that forces the hand of technology companies?  Should Governments be able to intervene and impose measures that create a potential negative disruptive impact on the technology landscape and threaten the fundamental principle and practice of data security?  Yesterday, Apple responded to this question with a ‘no’.  On the Apple website, Tim Cook stated that, “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”

And what is at stake?  Fundamentally, the right to privacy? Access to your entire digital DNA? A digital State where the imprint of your every action can be accessed? The creation of a back-door platform for cybercriminals to exploit all of this?  Maybe, and probably a lot more.

You can read the full statement from Apple here

Apple’s approach to privacy can be found here

 

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