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Thursday
Aug012013

2013: the year all our devices started listening

There will be a future time in history that humanity looks back and thinks: "That's it. That's when we started down the path of creating our robot overlords." And that time will be year 2013. The year that our devices started listening to everything.

We've become more and more dependant upon our computers, tablets and - most importantly - our phones. Our primary social interaction is done through Twitter and Facebook. Years of Hollywood movies have been made lame because - why didn't they just text that person to tell them where they were? My son well be growing up with a TV that responds to his gestures and is connected to another screen in his lap.

But touch screens, biometric sensors, and GPS wasn't enough for us humans. No. We needed our devices to be even more attentive. And so, we have created our devices to listen to us. All. The. Time.

Right now, you can download an app called "Heard" for iOS. The app is always recording everything it hears, buffering it for you in case you want to record it. Heard a funny joke? Pull out your iPhone, hit the button, and it will save up to the last five minutes for you. IT'S ALWAYS LISTENING. But... it's so worth it, right? I mean... that joke might have been REALLY funny.

Today, Google announced the newest phone from Motorola, the Moto X. The new Android device is always listening for a key phrase: "Ok Google Now." The voice response is tied to your voice - and only your voice. You say the phrase three times when you first start the phone and then it knows you. It knows you based off of three words.

This Christmas, Microsoft will release the Xbox One. Every Xbox One comes with a new, HD Kinect. Not only can it completely see you in the dark using Active IR, but it, too, is always listening. Simply say "Xbox On," and the system turns on. The Xbox can filter out your voice from the audio coming through the TV. It has multiple mics in it, so the Kinect knows what direction the audio is coming from. It's always listening, ready to be used by you.

Hearing these things... there is an inital push back. If I know the Moto X is hearing every word I say... maybe I will feel the need to ask a coworker to turn off their phone while talking about sensitive information. The first couple of times, the implication is that the person with the Moto X is invading my privacy. But in two years, when everyone who has upgraded their phone now has that same feature in some form or fashion... suddenly such a request is rude. Archaic. Behind the times. What do you have to hide that we have to turn off our every-day, normal devices that everyone has.

And they are all listening.

If a friend comes over, my Xbox One is on and maybe there's some future app that records audio/video as a security camera (which I would think is a great idea), do I have to give them a warning that by sitting on my couch they are being recorded? Do I have some kind of obligation to unplug my Xbox for the sake of someone else's privacy?

The Moto X, the Xbox One - at least the general public might know that those devices are always listening. But so many people have an iPhone and so few have the Heard app. There would be no way of knowing if someone had that installed. Do I have a right to ask someone if they've downloaded it? Do they have an obligation to tell me?

 

Of course... I'm not worried. I actually look forward to devices that listen. I mean, that's one step closer to having an R2-D2 follow me around, right? Here's the thing... I really don't mind. But it's still weird to fathom a world where devices all around me are listening for random key words or recording everything I say. But that's because I'm always curious to see what such technology will do, what it will bring us. Just because I'm ok with it, though... does that mean other people automatically will be? Should I have a big sign all the time that says "this conversation may be recorded?"

 

We're at a very real tipping point, where privacy is being gleefully sacrificed for the sake of cool, new features. Is it worth it? What's the next step in progress? And then, the scary, controversial realizations kick in... if this listening technology is already making it down to cheap, consumer-grade products... what else is already out there?

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