SEATTLE — It’s an exclusive address, eye-to-eye with the Space Needle, where everything going on inside and out can be monitored for your safety and convenience.
“House number 729” on the 30th floor of Amazon’s Day 1 tower, on Wednesday was a showcase for new and updated voice-computing devices and services from the Seattle company. The collection of security cameras, microphones, high-end speakers, displays and connected appliances represents a sweeping vision of automation, entertainment, ubiquitous surveillance and commerce permeating nearly every aspect of life.
At the center of it all is Amazon’s Alexa voice-computing system, which was just a secret development project called Doppler only eight years ago. Since its commercial introduction in 2014, the system has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business, attracting a growing group of industrial partners building everything from coffee machines to Christmas trees to cars that can be controlled with utterances received by high-fidelity microphones and interpreted by Amazon’s nearly unmatched cloud computing power.
But privacy concerns are growing as Amazon and other tech giants push voice-computing technology and the hardware that enables it into more places and things. Dave Limp, Amazon senior vice president of devices and services, devoted about seven minutes out of the 80 he spoke to features that people can switch on to limit what is captured and kept. These include a new ability for people to automatically delete voice recordings after a set period of time, and, coming in November, to turn off recording by Amazon’s Ring home security products when residents are at home.
Meanwhile, Amazon is fighting class-action lawsuits, including one in federal court in Seattle, over recordings of children who use its devices. It has come under criticism for partnerships with some 470 police departments to promote its Ring cameras and share footage, which civil liberties advocates find troubling.
And a report by Bloomberg earlier this year revealed that human annotators were listening to clips of Alexa recordings as part of a quality-control program, without customers’ knowledge.
Other tech giants including Facebook, Google and Microsoft have similar practices. Limp managed to turn even this into a feather for Alexa’s cap, noting that Amazon was the first company to allow users to opt out of the human review.
With the privacy discussion out of the way, Limp unveiled scores of new products, including three that would move Amazon’s microphones directly onto people: earbuds, eyeglasses and a ring (for your finger) – the latter two positioned as experiments to be offered initially on an invitation-only basis.
These wearable devices would fill a gap left by Amazon’s failure to develop its own viable smartphone. That puts it at a disadvantage to competitors Google and Apple, whose voice computing technology travels everywhere that Android and iPhone users take their devices. (Alexa can be used on smartphones through an app.)
Amazon’s vision of ubiquitous sensing and voice control relies on wireless connectivity, which — using existing technologies such as Bluetooth and home Wi-Fi, and even forthcoming 5G cellular networks — has limitations, particularly beyond the boundaries of the home.
Executives described a new wireless network protocol, Amazon Sidewalk, that could blanket entire cities with a signal to transmit and receive data from low-power sensors in mailboxes, backyard weather stations or transmitters attached to a dog’s collar – at least for starters.
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The technology is still in its early stages, but the company said that in a test deployment, 700 Amazon employees in the Los Angeles area were given Sidewalk hubs, which can cast a signal as far as a mile. The hubs knit together to cover nearly the entire city. In theory, a lost dog wearing a transmitter would be easily found within that network.
Back in Seattle, pathway lights leading up to the door at 729 connect using the Sidewalk technology. Other Ring cameras monitor the approach. At the front door, Alexa’s now-familiar voice can greet visitors through a Ring doorbell camera, automatically interviewing the girl selling cookies or the package delivery person on your behalf. Inside the home, an orange poster displays sample Alexa commands, such as: “Alexa, talk to the person at Front Yard.” In a backroom, a new souped-up Echo speaker is geared toward audiophiles.
Alexa can be an intermediary for other human conversations: A new education feature can connect Alexa to services used in schools, such as Kickboard and Coursera, allowing parents to ask the system how their kid is doing in school. “You can say things like, ‘Alexa, what homework does Sarah have tonight?’ and she’ll be able to answer that for you,” Limp said, adding, “We think this will be delightful for parents everywhere … and kids will love it.”
Indeed, Limp said Amazon has “seen a lot of traction in the past few years” for Alexa devices geared for kids. Another new capability allows kids to chat with each other over the devices, with parental consent required on both ends of the conversation.
Consent is a central issue in the class-action suits filed earlier this year, alleging Amazon is recording children who use Alexa in violation of the laws of several states, including Washington.
Amazon associate general counsel Brian Buckley said in a court filing in the case earlier this month that “Amazon users are required to agree to Amazon’s Conditions of Use … when they create an Amazon account, when they buy products or services through Amazon, and when they activate Echo smart speaker devices and other Alexa-enabled devices.”
He added that those conditions include an arbitration agreement, a provision waiving rights to a class-action lawsuit and a stipulation that people under 18 can only use the company’s services with the involvement of a parent or guardian.
But it’s unclear how deeply users understand the relationship they enter into with Amazon, and with other tech companies, when they purchase and use their devices and services.
Asked how long it would take for the typical user to read and understand Amazon’s terms of service and privacy agreements, Alexa senior vice president Tom Taylor, who has been at the company nearly 20 years, said, “Customers should take the time to read notices, but we also want to make it easier, in simpler ways. I think our privacy dashboard is an example.”
That’s an interface that puts all the Alexa privacy and data settings in one place.
He said he didn’t know how frequently people actually read the entire terms of service agreements for Alexa devices.