Just when you thought Alexa wasn’t integrated into enough stuff, Amazon has casually announced a new way to add the artificially intelligent voice assistant to even the cheapest, dumbest things. The new technology is capable of running Alexa with the most basic processors and less than 1MB of memory. That means you might soon mean your light switches, your toaster, and even your toothbrush might start listening to you.
The news isn’t altogether surprising. Amazon made it clear at its September hardware event that it has every intention of making it cheap and easy-to-install Alexa devices throughout your home and even on your body. There are the new Amazon Flex devices that are essentially tiny Alexa-enabled speakers that plug into a wall outlet like a nightlight. Alexa is central to the Echo Buds (earbuds), the Echo Loop (a smart ring), and the Echo Frames (smart glasses). But in the grand scheme of things, these are all reasonably sophisticated pieces of electronics.
The new Alexa technology—confusingly named AVS Integration for AWS IoT Core—means that gadgets with a simple, low-powered microcontroller and a minimal amount of RAM can run Alexa. Amazon explains on its developer blog that Alexa Built-in products used to require “expensive application processor-based devices with >50MB memory running on Linux or Android.” But now, it sounds like even a coffee mug could theoretically run Alexa.
“We now offload the vast majority of all of this to the cloud,” Dirk Didascalou, Vice President of AWS IoT, told TechCrunch. “So the device can be ultra dumb. The only thing that the device still needs to do is wake word detection. That still needs to be covered on the device.”
Dirk had a couple more dystopian things to say.
“It just opens up the what we call the real ambient intelligence and ambient computing space,” he said. “Because now you don’t need to identify where’s my hub—you just speak to your environment and your environment can interact with you. I think that’s a massive step towards this ambient intelligence via Alexa.”
In other words, Alexa can soon be so pervasive in your home, you won’t even know which device you’re talking to. And on top of that, some of these devices will be so dumb that they can only understand when you say the wake word, which is actually a remarkably important task for any voice assistant. After all, if the devices isn’t sophisticated enough to know when it’s supposed to start recording your command, there’s a good chance it will record you by accident.
This is a well known and frankly a pretty serious problem with technology like Alexa and Google Assistant. You’ve probably heard that story of an Amazon Echos recording entire conversations between two unsuspecting people, and Alexa sent that recording to an acquaintance without the users’ consent. This is a simple case of the computer thinking it heard a wake word and then a command. You might not realize that most voice assistants make this mistake many times a day. All you have to do is open up your settings to see the many times Alexa or Google Assistant or even Siri record snippets of your life that weren’t supposed to be heard. (Check out a handy guide on how to find and delete those recordings here.)
In addition to the wake word problem, improving privacy is a big reason why some companies want to avoid using the cloud for voice assistants. Sonos recently acquired a French company called Snips that’s been working on an AI voice platform that does all processing on a device. This might mean that you’ll soon be able to control your Sonos speaker with your voice without sending recordings up to the cloud. Similarly, Apple says that not all of Siri’s functionality requires you to send your data to the cloud.
It seems like Amazon wants you to send all your data to the cloud. This is the same company that recently patented a “system for capturing and processing portions of a spoken utterance command that may occur before a wakeword.” After all, Alexa could surely work better if it were installed in everything and always listening. Privacy would be an afterthought, but it seems like Amazon never really cared about privacy anyway.