To head off such concerns, Amazon senior vice president for devices Dave Limp listed features the company includes to address privacy concerns in the first 10 minutes of his 75-minute presentation.
Because Amazon lacks an Alexa-powered smartphone such as Google and Apple have, it’s looking for other ways to make its always-listening assistant omnipresent. In addition to the wearables, it announced an updated Echo Dot that shows the time and a new eight-inch Echo Show. There was also the Echo Glow, which is essentially a soothing, Alexa-controlled night light. The Alexa-controlled Amazon Smart Oven can read bar codes on packaged foods and automatically cook them according the directions, and a new Ring Elite doorbell feature adds Alexa to the front door to chat up visitors and take messages if you’re away.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon has previously taken a similar spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to such events, introducing dozens of features and gadgets including an AI-assistant-powered microwave oven and a wall clock that could show a timer. But many of those devices haven’t exactly taken off. For example, last year’s Echo Auto device, which retroactively brings Alexa to older vehicles, was still available only by invitation as of Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was open to all customers.
Amazon has recently jumped in on the traditional fall events that technology companies, including Apple and Google, host to highlight their new products, most of which are released in time for the holiday season. But Amazon takes a looser approach than its sometimes-rival Apple. Instead of showing off a handful of nearly finished products, Amazon shares a long list of releases of varying quality and readiness, not all of which will make it to consumers.
Meanwhile, Amazon has spent much of the past five years pushing its Alexa voice assistant into as many nooks and crannies of people’s lives as possible. It lives in the company’s Echo smart speakers, of course, but it also works with third-party speakers, as well as with cars, kitchen appliances and a fancy toilet. The research firm eMarketer says Amazon Echos will make up 63.2 percent of the smart-speaker market this year, with Google’s Home speakers accounting for 31 percent.
But though Amazon leads in smart speakers, a phone is conspicuously missing from its offerings. Google and Apple sell phones with their own smart assistants built into the operating systems. That advantage is crucial as the tech giants fight for what may be the next big battleground: conversational computing. Each company is racing to emerge with the dominant voice technology that consumers will use to tell their gadgets to play music, turn on lights and find information.
And while Amazon has a head start in bringing speech recognition to consumers’ homes, it faces a huge hurdle competing in the mobile world against Apple and Google, whose technologies run most smartphones around the globe.
That was part of what the firm tried to address Wednesday. In addition to new hardware, Amazon announced a wide range of new software features and products. Alexa can now tell when you are frustrated with it by detecting changes in the volume and tone of your voice and choice of words. It will change how it replies accordingly, even sheepishly apologize and try to correct course. And like Google Assistant before it, Alexa is adding the ability to use celebrity voices, starting with Samuel L. Jackson.
Still, Amazon’s critics have questioned the company’s commitment to privacy. Many have pointed to Amazon’s facial recognition technology, which is taking off in use by law enforcement, as posing risks to civil liberties.
Bezos told reporters at the event that the area of facial recognition is “a perfect example of where regulation is needed," adding that his public policy team was working on regulations. He said facial recognition uses can be positive, and you don’t want to pump the brakes. “At the same time, there’s lots of potential for abuses with that kind of technology, and so you do want regulations. It’s a classic dual use kind of technology.”
Additionally this spring, a coalition of 19 consumer groups accused Amazon of illegally collecting voice recordings and other identifying information on users under 13 with its Echo Dot Kids Edition.
The company is continuing to develop products for children, an area Limp said has seen the most traction in the past year. It will let educational software companies create Alexa skills. That will allow parents, for example, to ask an Echo how their children did on tests at school or what homework they have to do, instead of asking their children directly. It is adding its child-aimed service FreeTime to Echo Show devices, too, which will also let children send messages to an approved list of people.
Limp said Amazon has improved by 50 percent the accuracy of detecting when users say “Alexa” to wake the device to hear commands. That way, Echo devices are less likely to listen in on conversations when users don’t want them to.
“We want to get better and better on that,” Limp said.
In May, Amazon gave consumers the ability to use voice commands to delete recordings of what they’ve said throughout the day. Users can now ask Alexa what the device heard. And they will soon be able to ask Alexa why it took specific actions, so they can understand why it played music or turned on lights when users didn’t intend for that to happen.
Amazon also added a $59.99 home camera from Ring, the doorbell-camera company it bought 18 months ago. Its Alexa Guard security service can use those cameras, along with its Echo devices, to detect sounds such as breaking glass, something that can indicate if a house has been broken into.
Last month, The Post reported that Ring has forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police departments across the United States, giving them access to homeowners’ camera footage if users grant permission. Heading off questions about surveillance, Limp said the new Ring gadgets let customers flip on “home mode” to halt the recording of sounds and images.
“We continue to believe when you add Ring to a neighborhood, crime is reduced,” Limp said.
Several of Amazon’s newest products could test the limits of consumer comfort with regard to privacy. The Echo Buds headphones record anything a wearer says when it hears the wake word, “Alexa.” People who wear its new Echo Frames — an experimental device, available for now only by invitation — will have a microphone on their heads as long as they have their glasses on. Limp said the device records only when instructed.
Like the $250 Echo Frames, the $180 Echo Loop is being made in limited quantities and will be available by invitation only. The Echo Buds will cost $130 and have noise-reduction technology from Bose.