How did Amazon Echo change your life

Amazon Echo : How digital butlers should change our lives

The Germans should get a new roommate. It is called Alexa and is hidden in an optionally white or black speaker, the shape of which is reminiscent of a chip box. Placed in the living room, Alexa answers all possible questions when spoken to. About when the next train to Hamburg leaves. How the weather will be. Or whether there is a traffic jam on the city motorway. In the long term, Alexa should also be able to book flights, call a taxi or go shopping for the user.

The American online retailer Amazon is behind this digital butler. In the USA, Canada and Great Britain he has already brought the devices called Amazon Echo onto the market. In Germany, they have been sent to the first test customers since this week. Through this trial phase, Amazon wants to find out how well Alexa understands the dialects of the German language. When the Amazon Echo will be available for the masses to buy in this country, the group leaves it open. It will probably be 2017.

Digital butlers could change our lives

However, experts are already predicting that digital butlers like Amazon Echo could change our lives in a way that smartphones did recently. Timm Lutter from the Bitkom industry association speaks of a "very important trend". “Voice assistants create a completely new interface between man and machine,” he says. Instead of using a keyboard, the new devices allow users to use their voice with computers. “It's a much more natural way of communicating.” In a recent survey by the association, four out of ten Germans said they could well imagine using such language assistants.

The devices can, for example, play music on command, announce sports results or read e-mails aloud. In the long term, they should also be able to control a large part of household appliances. As soon as they are connected to the Internet, you should be able to instruct the digital butler, for example, to turn up the heating, pull up the shutters or start the coffee machine.

Google and Apple are also entering the market

For corporations that produce such voice assistants, this should be a lucrative business. The market research company Mizuho predicts that Amazon alone should earn eleven billion dollars with Echo in 2020. It is therefore not surprising that other providers are also pushing their way into this market. Google, for example, is launching a competing product, Google Home, in the US as early as November - it should also be available in Germany in the spring of next year. Google Home looks similar to a flower vase and also has a smart speaker. In principle, it can do everything that Amazon Echo does: for example, announce the weather, order pizza or play music. In addition, Google's assistant should be able to dictate his shopping list, which is then automatically transferred to the smartphone. The iPhone company Apple is also said to be working on such a digital butler. It should be controlled via the Siri voice service, which has been available on the iPhone for a long time.

The UK already has experience with Amazon Echo

While the new digital butlers in Germany are mostly still in the test phase, the UK is already one step further. Amazon Echo, for example, has been available to everyone there for a month. The first experiences users have had there are mixed. Tim Skelton-Smith, for example, finds it very useful. “It's especially useful when you have kids and your hands full in the morning,” says the 36-year-old Briton, who only bought the device a week ago. "With that you can simply ask how the weather will be or what the headlines are in the newspapers - without lifting a finger."

Alex Coady, who describes himself as a technology lover and programs websites professionally, already speaks more like a person than a device about his Amazon Echo. He uses Echo, for example, to have relaxation music played to him before going to sleep or to set the alarm clock. Echo is also useful when cooking. “My smartphone no longer drops in the flour or chicken when I want to see how long something takes in the oven,” says Coady. Despite this usefulness, he too had a strange feeling at first. After all, the device listens constantly so that it can react immediately if it is addressed. “Echo is in my bedroom,” says Coady, “on the first night I found it creepy that it listens all the time.” But he trusts that Amazon will not misuse the data.

Data protection experts are critical of the development

Daniel Nesbitt of the British civil rights organization Big Brother Watch thinks this is questionable. “Amazon Echo can learn a lot about users, about their habits and their personalities,” he says. That could be very intrusive, especially if someone is not clear what he is revealing about himself. In addition, there is a risk that the data would be stolen in the course of a hacker attack. "Personally, I wouldn't buy the Amazon Echo."

The group itself points out that you can also switch off the device and delete the data. Christopher Weatherhead from the human rights organization Privacy International criticizes that it is not clear whether Amazon can no longer access the deleted data or not. "This not only affects the owner of the device, but is also not very comforting for people whose voice has been accidentally recorded."

Not everyone in Germany is enthusiastic about the new devices either. "Intelligent language assistants who are constantly 'eavesdropping' on their surroundings should be viewed critically from a data protection point of view," says the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, Andrea Voßhoff. For users, it is not sufficiently comprehensible "how, to what extent and where the recorded information is processed". It is also not clear for how long the data will be stored. "If you consider the current security gaps in many Internet services, the security of the data obtained cannot be guaranteed one hundred percent," said Voßhoff. Consumers should therefore "carefully consider whether the practical advantages of a digital assistant justify the possible round-the-clock surveillance of their privacy".

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