Taken to extremes, the Amazon Echo -- announced last week -- is either amazing or horrifying. On one hand, the tech giant has brought us one step closer to all-knowing, ever-helpful home assistant that we've hoped for since we first saw Captain Kirk talk to the Enterprise's computer. On the other, it's a product that records snippets of what you say in the privacy of your home and stores it on Amazon's servers.
Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post, didn't give the device a glitzy launch event, opting instead for a press release and tons of ads on the company's home page. As a consequence, there hasn't been a lot of in-depth explanation about the device. So here's a quick primer on what Echo is, how it works and how it affects your privacy.
Why would I want an Echo?
It's a little hard to explain what the Echo does. In addition to being your basic Bluetooth speaker, the Echo is also Amazon's answer to Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google's "Ok, Google" voice assistant, liberated from the confines of the smartphone.
Amazon has also designed special commands to use with its music services -- as well as iHeartRadio and TuneIn -- that let you tell the Echo to play specific mixes or genres. In the future, it'd be easy to imagine Echo working with other smart appliances such as your thermostat or refrigerator, but Amazon hasn't even hinted at plans for functions like that for now.
So how would you use it out of the box? In its slightly awkward demo video of the Echo, Amazon makes the case that having the Echo around will help you solve trivia questions, homework conundrums -- basically all of those little questions that you find yourself searching for through the course of the day, but without having to pick up or yell at your smartphone to ask them:
What information is getting saved?
As with many voice-activated electronics, the Echo is triggered by a "wake word" -- in the video, that's "Alexa." (Pretty much exactly like the existing options of "Ok Google," "Hey Siri," "Xbox" -- take your pick.) The Echo will listen constantly for that wake word. Once it hears it, it will stream whatever you say next to the Amazon cloud -- but it will also go back and send a few seconds before the wake word to the cloud as well.
Amazon has said that this is to fine tune Echo's performance so it can learn how you use it, and what you need it for the most.
Will it let me know when it's listening?
The Echo will light up when it's listening to you if you use the button on the top of it or activate it through the remote. If you use a phrase to wake up the Echo, you can opt to have the speaker play noises at the start and end of each transmission to the cloud.
Can I delete that?
According to a frequently asked questions page posted by Amazon, the things you ask Echo are recorded and kept on the company's servers unless you delete them.To do that, users have to go into the "History" settings in a companion app for the Echo, which will let you view all your queries and nix the ones you don't want individually. You can also delete the queries in bulk.
Doing so will also delete the information off of Amazon's servers, a company spokesperson confirmed.
Can I turn the microphone off?
You can turn off the microphone by way of an on/off button that will be on the top of the speaker. If you do that, of course, none of the voice commands will work and you'll only be able to control the speaker by using the remote. That will help you avoid accidentally triggering Echo if, for instance, you are having a dinner guest over with the same name as your wake word.
Will my information be used for ads?
The simple answer is that we don't know. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this point, nor has it released any information on how the Echo will interact with Amazon.com.
However, one of the key functions of the Echo is the ability to add things to your shopping list. Given that Amazon is the world's largest online retailer, it's probably safe to assume that, at some point, the things you shop for via Echo could be used to generate wish lists or recommendations.
That would be in line with the company's past strategies on hardware, which is to sell products on the cheap -- the Echo costs $199, or just $99 for members of Amazon's Prime service -- and make money by using its gadgets to drive more spending on its site, by way of books, music, movies or just about anything you might want.
For the Echo, the profit picture is still a little blurry. Amazon could certainly use the speaker to drive more users to its music properties, but the shopping list function certainly hints that it has far more in mind. We'll have to keep an eye on this device, which users can currently only buy if they sign up for an invitation to do so.