Amazon just announced the launch of its new Echo Show 5, the aptly named new digital assistant with a 5.5 inch video screen, built-in camera and price tag of $90, a relative bargain compared to its competition.
Why is this important? First, let me retell an experience from a few years ago. I was driving my 7-year-old son to school, and as boys do, we talked about krakens, the legendary Norse sea monster that mystified seafaring vessels in ancient times. He had been learning about them in school and was excited to share with me how cool they were.
Did you know that while modern impressions of the kraken mostly describe it as a massive squid, early stories described it as crab-like, with long, hard and spindly appendages? That is cool. I digress.
Anyway, after queuing in the parent line and dropping him off, I returned to my office and fired up the laptop. One of my Chrome browser tabs was open to Facebook, so I refreshed the page, and the first post in my newsfeed was a sponsored ad from National Geographic about an upcoming episode featuring, you guessed it, krakens.
Because I had not done anything other than discuss it with my son in the car, I dismissed it as coincidence. This was a time, after all, before ubiquitous digital assistants and smart speakers, and Siri was rather new. It was just difficult to conceive that Siri was listening to our conversation and used it to tailor content.
Over the years, however, these coincidences have become more and more common, with even a few chilling examples in just the past few days (stop listening to me, Despacito beer, your smooth blend is nice, but your awkwardly placed ads are not).
All of these coincidences have morphed from debated conspiracies to theories with plenty of anecdotal evidence. For years, Big Tech has shied away from disclosing if they recorded conversations or used the aggregated information. That topic was brought forth when, according to TechCrunch, a New Hampshire court ordered Amazon to turn over Amazon Echo recordings -- two days worth -- in a double-murder case.
More recently, The New York Times reported that Amazon actually keeps every recording ever made on your Amazon device -- which is every time Alexa purposely, and inadvertently, turned on. You can actually see your history in the app and delete some recordings, but you cannot stop Alexa from recording your commands and using it, as the company contends, to improve on its artificial intelligence and service.
Why should we care? For two reasons. First and foremost, because the data being collected -- including your voice and actions -- belongs to you. Big Tech should not be allowed to collect this from you without your consent.
Second, beyond the implications to privacy and civil liberties, this continuous collection and aggregation of unimaginable amounts of data is dangerous and can be, and some argue has been, used against us. When technology giants know so much about us, even in the aggregate, it is difficult to know how it can be used.
It does not appear that households are fearing this intrusion. As Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, said in a statement earlier this year, "Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year."
Indeed, there have been more than 27 million Amazon and Google smart speakers sold (as of 4Q 2018) -- not to mention the billion-plus iPhones with the Siri assistant.
Amazon has recently indicated its speakers will follow instructions when you say, "Alexa, delete everything I said today," or "Alexa, delete what I just said," and Google has a feature that allows you to turn off recordings. But like a 7-year-old that absorbs everything you say with uncanny accuracy, can you really ask them to forget?
What do you think? Have you experienced the Alexa phenomenon? Please share your stories with me on Facebook.