Is your Smart Speaker really a Smart Listener?

Comment from Peter Saxon.

Hands up those in the room who don’t immediately grasp the practicality of every new hi-tech advancement as soon as its released but pretend they do anyway because they don’t want people to think they’re a dill or a luddite or both?
I realise I may be the only one dumb enough to have my hand up. In fact, in this room where I’m typing this out, I am. The two dogs on the couch with me slumber on regardless and even when awake, they understand only a few commands – and of those:  sit, stay, come – only selectively. If you want obedience, get yourself a Smart Speaker.
Like many inventions, even radio itself, was slow to build momentum because the general public couldn’t, at first, figure out what the benefit was for them. The word radio (derived from the Latin ‘radius’ meaning ‘beam’) gave no clue as to what this gadget could do for humankind. By comparison, the dishwasher, whose name leaves one in no doubt as to its application, caught on immediately. 
The techies who owned and operated the first radio stations could only demonstrate its technical capabilities, not its benefits. It took people who understood that radio’s capabilities had limited consumer appeal without compelling content. Otherwise it was like having a fridge and not stocking it with food. It was only after the medium started to offer some professionally produced programming that radio became a word that meant something to Mr and Mrs Airfridge.
Of course, techie, futureist and radioinfo contributor, James Cridland, has been way ahead of the curve with his articles on what a Smart Speaker is and why it is important for radio. 
Simply put, a smart speaker is a voice interface that allows you to speak a command rather than manually flick a switch, click an icon, change a channel or tune in a radio station. 
Star Trek fans will be familiar with the “Communicator Badge” (a more descriptive name than Smart Speaker) that every crew member wore on the TV series. All they had to do was slap the badge on their chest and say what they wanted and the ship’s computer made it happen. “Computer: Engage Warp Speed. Replicate a beef lasagne. Captain Picard to the bridge.”  
The modern working version doesn’t quite do all of that – yet. And before we get carried away, the one on Star Trek didn’t actually do any of that. It didn’t work at all. It was just a science fiction TV show, remember. 
Today, in real life, you don’t even have to slap your chest to activate a smart speaker. You just have to be in earshot of its microphone and say, “Hey Siri” or “Alexa” or “Google” (depending on whether you bought an Apple Home Pod, Amazon Echo or Google Home) and your (almost) every wish (within reason) is its command.
With the latest Alexa (Amazon’s name for the virtual voice embodied in its range of smart speakers) you can say things like: “Alexa dim the lights; set the air conditioner to 23 degrees; set the alarm to 6:30am or what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?”
 All of which makes me wonder why they didn’t call it a Smart Listener? After all, that’s the main thing a smart speaker does. It is constantly listening, waiting patiently for a mention of its name so it can spring to life and make itself useful. What bothers many people is that if a smart speaker such as Alexa is listening all the time, exactly how much is it hearing and learning about you?
Friends have told me that they’ve been at home alone with their spouse discussing ideas for their next holiday. Soon after, travel ads for the destinations they were talking about start appearing in their browser. Coincidence or conspiracy?
Either way, according to an article by Geoffery A. Fowler in the Washington Post, Amazon’s business model is not about making any huge profit through selling you Alexa enabled Echo devices for every room. The big picture is to get you locked into the Amazon ecosystem so that it becomes your one stop shop for everything from books and electronics to groceries. It’s about gathering more information about you and your buying patterns, so they can anticipate your needs and serve you more efficiently. A smart fridge, for example, will tell Amazon when you’re running out of milk so they can automatically add it to your Amazon shopping list and include it in the next bundle of Amazon items they deliver to your door.
Many will find all this capability a time saving asset for their busy lives, others will say it’s a solution looking for a problem. And still others will find the convenience that smart speakers offer not worth the trade off in privacy.
Of course, in the midst of all this capability is a very capable radio and audio device. Hey Siri/Alexa/Google listen to Fitzy & Wippa on Nova or play Bob Dylan songs from Spotify, listen to the latest Radio National news bulletin or the latest episode of Paul Roos The Coach podcast.
I guess when they sat down to decide what to call this thing – bereft of ideas for a name that describes what it does in the way that lawnmower and corkscrew do. And Communicator Badge was already taken – they ended up with a choice between Smart Speaker and Smart Listener.

Which is more likely to make consumers want to buy this thing? 
Do people want a device that listens to everything they say (and do) in their bathroom, kitchen and bedroom or a device that can play every conceivable type of audio content available online at their command?

“Smart Speaker” won out.


Peter Saxon