Amazon Echo Awaits Your Command - InformationWeek

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11/6/2014
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Amazon Echo Awaits Your Command

Echo microphone and speaker system lets you talk to Amazon's cloud and get answers, news, and music.

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Apple has Siri. Google has Voice Search. Microsoft has Cortana. To meet the expectation of platform parity, Amazon introduced a cloud-based voice query system of its own on Thursday.

Amazon Echo currently is being offered by invitation only, to Amazon Prime members for $99 (for a limited time) and to the general public for $199. It is a microphone and speaker system tied to Amazon's cloud that listens for a selected keyword and interprets the words that follow as a command or search query.

Prompted by a "wake word" -- Amazon proposes "Alexa," but it could just as well be something more fun, such as, "OK, Google," "HAL," or, for fans of Alien and Psycho, "Mother" -- Echo can stream news, weather, and information on demand from local radio stations or music services such as iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. It can play music from the cloud through Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. It can create alarms, timers, and lists. It can answer common questions using Wikipedia. Amazon plans to add more services over time.

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It's tempting to think of Echo as Siri incarnated as a plastic cylinder, but it's rather a different beast. Siri and its peers are present sometimes, when your phone is nearby or, in Google's case, when your computer is running Chrome. Echo is present always, so long as it's plugged in and connected to a wireless network. And its visible presence invites interaction in a way that smartphones do not.

Echo is not a mobile device, yet it's designed to be useful as users move around it. Echo is an Internet of Things device that could motivate customers to buy compatible Bluetooth-enabled devices that they can order around by voice command. It is also a social device: Where smartphones tend to be personal devices, Echo attends to everyone in the area. But there's an Echo app, too.

A family peppers its new Echo with questionsin an Amazon promotional video.
A family peppers its new Echo with questions
in an Amazon promotional video.

What's more, Echo's strength as a speaker makes it better suited to deliver audio services than a smartphone with limited audio output capabilities. And if Echo finds favor as a home audio system, speakers that lack a microphone for bi-directional audio transmission could become quaint. Sonos should worry.

Those who value privacy are already worried. The risk posed by devices that listen is well known, though probably more acute in corporate or government offices than in the homes of boring people who flaunt their activities on social media and still get little attention. At the 2013 Black Hat security conference, Kevin McNamee, director of Alcatel-Lucent's Kindsight Security Labs, demonstrated how to subvert a smartphone to track location, intercept communication, and activate the camera and microphone. And there have been reports of such intrusions outside of conference settings, such as the hacking of a baby monitor.

"This 'Internet of Things' trend coincides unfortunately with the 'dragnet surveillance' trend," Miles Richardson, a computer scientist graduating from Yale at the end of the year, wrote in a Hacker News post. "With every new product launch from a 'cloud company,' I increasingly feel as if I'm reading the tombstone of modern society. The selling point behind these devices is convenience, but at the cost of security. I don't think I need to explain to [Hacker News] why an always-on, Internet-connected voice recording device is something to keep out of your house."

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request to clarify what Echo transmits and what gets stored in Amazon's cloud. If only there were some device that would answer such questions.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Mike718
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Mike718,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/9/2014 | 1:12:39 PM
Re: Amazon Echo FAQs
It's not the default intended use that concerns me and should concern you. It's when Amazon receives a National Security letter they can't discuss publically, ordering them to activate the speaker in a manner that captures all sound and speech in a room and send it to a Federal agency for indefinite storage (hey, it's not a search and therefore not covered by the Bill of Rights until a human listens, according to the NSA). Before 9/11, that woud sound like a concern of someone wearing a tinfoil hat. Now with the Snowden and other revelations, the so-called Patriot Act, and other actions, it's reality.

 
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
11/7/2014 | 10:26:32 AM
Re: What's so creepy or unsettling?
Not to sound like a conspiracy nut, but what is so creepy is that this thing is listening to you ALL THE TIME. Sure, it doesn't repond until it hears the "wake word" but who knows what it is doing the rest of the time. Amazon could easily use this to monetize your entire life. What happens when the US Governement subpoenas Amazon for recordings of your home conversation to determine if you are a terrorist, or as of this current administration, someone who dissents?

What if someone hacks it to eavesdrop on everything you say just to post it in public spaces? Law enforcement could "activate" these devices to eavesdrop without warrants...the list goes on and on.

10 years ago I would say this stuff is crazy, but with the current US Administration using the IRS, FBI and DOJ and other branches to attack their political enemies and monitor the general public, we have to be wary of these possibilites.
Apocolyptica
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Apocolyptica,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/7/2014 | 9:14:30 AM
Re: Amazon Echo FAQs
What's so unsettling about it? It's not like it will bite you. People dictate to computers all the time and there are all kinds of home devices that accept voice commands. Cars have had this type of technology for awhile now.
Apocolyptica
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Apocolyptica,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/7/2014 | 9:11:03 AM
What's so creepy or unsettling?
Well it seems cool, though I am not sure how much I would actually use it. For me I would want it to be able to play Itunes playlists by playlist name, I want to hear local news and sports news from my favorite teams etc. The ability to tie into my phone line would be cool too if I could just tell it to call someone from my contact list, not sure if it can do that or not. Kind of surprise Apple doesn't make something like this with Siri.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
11/7/2014 | 12:53:15 AM
Re: Amazon Echo FAQs
I don't see the utility of Echo right now. it seems as if these voice services are a bit ahead of their time. Not to mention I don't really want to see a world where people are talking to machines all the time. 

The idea of people talking to machines on a consistent basis is a bit unsettling to me. Anyone else?
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
11/6/2014 | 10:11:58 PM
Re: Always listening and ready to order
I think this tool is really convenient. I just don't know whether people will be interested in having a voice recognition tool as the main hub for their house.  All these devices come with security flaws.  How much security people can afford will be the big question? Holiday season is coming soon and amazon will soon find out whether this new tool is really successful.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
11/6/2014 | 8:06:04 PM
Second opinion from my wife
Her: "That's creepy. I don't want us all talking to some machine all the time."

Me: "It's just like Siri or Cortana without pressing buttons."

Her: "Just get up and go over to the computer or use the iPad."
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
11/6/2014 | 7:49:36 PM
Maybe this will make up for the Fire Phone
Watch the video on the "invite" page linked above. If this think is as good as the demos, it's going to be a big hit. As a Prime member, I'd gladly pay $99 just for the novelty. It's like having Siri or Cortana at your beckon call without pressing buttons. It's a master stroke to let customers choose their own "wake" word so they can call this thing whatever they want. You could even call it Siri or Cortana, I suppose. If it works well you could call it "Einstein" and if it doesn't, you could say, "yo dummy."
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
11/6/2014 | 5:59:22 PM
Always listening and ready to order
An always-on device, capable of detecting a wake word, capturing conversation, and placing an order based on keywords would render me mute, if I were in its vicinity. But it will be fool proof, right? 
Thomas Claburn
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50%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/6/2014 | 5:56:12 PM
Amazon Echo FAQs
Amazon has posted some FAQs about Echo, some of which address privacy concerns. Most notably, Amazon says it will allow you to delete voice interactions sent to Amazon. It's not immediately clear whether those recordings get retained outside of the user account.
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