When You're talking, Who's Listening?

Voice Command is All About Control

In speaking with an associate recently, he recounted working on a palatial home some years ago for a well heeled auto industry exec. Although the home neared 15,000 square feet, the client omitted lighting control from the project because he was sure voice control was just around the corner.

Fast forward far enough that his kids, elementary school age at the time, are now homeowners themselves.... and the auto exec is finally getting his voice control.

It's a technology we've all known is “just around the corner” for quite some time. Well, back in January we reported that Amazon had sold over 8.5 million of their Alexa voice control units, so it seems that we're finally turning that corner.

As with most other technologies though, it is still in its infancy, despite the nearly double digit millions of Alexa units the 'Zon has managed to roll off its website. The good news? If you already have a home control system there's a chance we can add at least some voice control functionality to it now.

I'm Awake, Let's Do This!!

“Alexa, I'm awake” can set your entire home to your perfect wake up environment. The shades rise, your perfect wake up music rolls through the speakers, and a path magically lights to your coffee maker. Yes, there IS fresh coffee brewing, of course! Your bath TV goes to CNBC so you can catch up on the markets as you get ready for the office.

As you're leaving, simply tell your home. It will ensure your security system is activated, lights and A/V systems are off and the shades drop. If it's:

  • Lights
  • Thermostat
  • Shades
  • Media
  • Scene Presets

… chances are we can activate, deactivate or access it using your voice.

Not Too Sure About Voice Control Yet

Maybe voice control isn't really your thing (yet). Visions of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey dance through your head. In that case, we can already do all of this cool stuff from a keypad button press or by using your security system to tell the automation system when it's armed or disarmed. When it's armed to “away” the system knows you're leaving. When you disarm it, it knows your back and takes the appropriate measures to make sure you're warm and fuzzy.

Always Listening.... to Everything

Maybe you've already picked up on something that has some folks a bit unnerved. All of these voice control units must be listening 24/7. It's the only way they can be ready to carry out your commands. What do they do with this info, and who else can listen in to what they're hearing? Good question!

White coat types call these technologies Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) engines. In theory, these smart machines do nothing until they hear the “Wake” word. In Alexa's case, it's “Alexa”. For Google home, the other prime voice technology, it's “Ok, Google.” You've probably uttered those words yourself a time or two. Voice control machines must always be listening for that word or phrase, however.

Some worry that that listening capability could be hacked and surreptitious forces may listen for fun or profit. Could it happen? Possibly, if the right brainiac hacker hits on the perfect formula to do so. Amazon and Google have some pretty formidable resources at their disposal to make sure this doesn't happen, though. After all, their engineers and execs use this tech in their own homes, and they have a vested interest in keeping it secure.

The other worry is the recordings could be used by government to implicate someone. Could the voice data be used in that way? It would likely require a court order, but it does open an interesting scenario that will likely make big headlines at some point in the future.

We've reached critical mass. Not in the uncontrolled, nuclear chain reaction sense, but in that we are not going away from voice control or a world where everything is intertwined through the Internet. We've seen the future and most have readily embraced it, privacy concerns be damned! We're a convenience society now, and you have to admit, convenience has never been more, well, convenient.