Should I wear my signature leather coat or my ruby-red sports jacket today?
I used to make this choice alone as I prepared at home to face the world. Now the latest Amazon Echo home assistant, Echo Look, will choose for me. That’s right; internet-connected machines claim to have more fashion sense than we mortals, and will proffer their humble digital opinion about what we wear.
If you haven’t encountered Amazon Echo, it is a speaker-like home personal assistant that you plonk in the corner of your room, plug in and connect to the internet. You talk to it and it responds. You can ask Echo, aka “Alexa”, to switch on lights and appliances such as airconditioners, tell you the weather and news, read out your next calendar entry, play music or tell you the best local Thai restaurants to visit.
It’s like Apple’s Siri personal assistant but packaged as a home speaker and tailored for domestic use, particularly for controlling a home environment.
Echo has been available in the US for almost two years but not in Australia officially, although thousands here have imported it. Its main rival is Google Home, while Apple is rumoured to be working on a home adaptation of Siri.
But now there’s more. Last week, Amazon announced it would take Echo to a new level, adding a camera and, with it, an ability of its artificial intelligence system to view and make sense of the visual world around it.
On one level, this is a technical revelation. On another, it’s a budding privacy nightmare, with the new Echo Look capable of taking and storing photos and video, and interpreting what it sees. It may notice that your pot plants need watering, the cat litter tray needs cleaning, the kettle is boiling and you haven’t turned it off, or people it doesn’t recognise are in the room. Such is the capability of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Fortunately, Amazon has limited what the on-board camera does, at least for now. Look is about what Amazon does best: making money. In this case, it’s about fashion and sales.
You can ask Alexa to take a picture or a video of you wearing various outfits and across time it will create a personal lookbook, a visual catalogue of what you’ve worn. Echo Look has a depth sensor so it can make your fashion choices stand out by blurring photo backgrounds. Choose two photos, and Echo Look will run a style check and offer its opinion on what looks best on you, based on fit, colour, styling and trends as interpreted by Amazon. It comes up with a percentage rating for each of the two looks.
The commercial bit is that it apparently suggests items of fashion that may improve your look even further. It’s not rocket science to infer that these items will be available online through Amazon. It means Amazon can market clothing to you at home, as you get dressed in the morning, when it has your undivided attention.
One can only imagine where this machine learning and image recognition capability heads next. One day Look may observe you discarding your empty bottles of red wine, glean the names of books you read and brand of coffee you buy, and create suggested Amazon orders to replenish supplies.
Is this far-fetched? Not as much as you think, given that computer systems can analyse the contents of images. Google Photos does that now. If Amazon added a spectroscopy sensor it could tell you about the state of foods, fruits and other organic material in your kitchen.
While we contemplate this futuristic twilight zone, Amazon and Google have upgraded the bread-and-butter features of Echo and Home.
Home lets you set the colour intensity of Philips Hue Ambience light bulbs, so I can ask Google Home to change the living room light colour to red or set the kitchen light brightness to 100 per cent. Echo handles brightness settings but not colour changes. In the US, Echo apparently can set Hue colour “scenes” but this doesn’t work for me. Hue competitor Lifx is selling lights in Australia, but at more than $70 each they are not a cheap solution either.
To its credit, Amazon has allowed the developer community to create dialogues for Alexa and there are more than 1000. They are listed at www.echoskillstore.com. You tell Alexa to reference any skill set that you “enable”. Take The Bartender, which has a collection of more than 12,000 cocktail recipes. You could say, “Alexa, ask The Bartender how do I make a brandy Alexander?”
There are about 20 skill sets for cars that let you tell Alexa to remote start or remotely lock doors on chosen Mercedes, Ford and Hyundai models, check the battery levels, climate status and initiate charging on some electric cars — all using voice commands in our home.
But Alexa’s repertoire is restricted or non-existent when it comes to local queries because Amazon hasn’t launched Echo here. It doesn’t have anything like the data of Echo in the US.
Being newer, Google Home doesn’t have the wide range of skills of Echo, at least yet, although you can access more than 200 services through Home. I found Home handles language better than Echo. I can use more casual, everyday phrases when I talk to Home. In Australia Google Home can handle requests about the local area. It can find a suitable restaurant, tell me when the next train goes from my local station in Sydney and identify issues with today’s commute.
Both systems offer help in the kitchen with Alexa maintaining a grocery list, letting you set timers for cooking, and it connects to coffee machines, cookers, casserole dishes and other appliances. You can search for and buy these appliances online.
Recipes can be accessed through the Allrecipes skill and Digital News Australia (part of News Corp Australia) is developing a recipes skill set called Taste. Alexa tells you what to do step-by-step.
Google Home has the jump on Alexa in other areas. For example, Google has announced that Home will support up to six people. It can identify each by voice. It will read out the calendar entries of the voice that requests it, and detail your commute to work rather than the commute of your partner. You may have different preferences for lighting and cooling. Google Home will understand that. How Home copes when all the family is around remains to be seen.
Google integrates Home with the Google Assistant on Android, and the Google Allo app on iOS. Very soon, you’ll be able to choose one of five million recipes from your phone and forward it to Google Home, which will read out the instructions step-by-step.
So what about Apple? It has yet to integrate Siri into a smart home device similar to Echo and Home but it is rumoured that such a device is on the way. It could be announced as early as the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, if the rumours are true.
It may be early days in Australia, but these personal assistants will become extremely popular, especially when local services and skill sets have been developed that let you talk to Home and Echo and organise your life.
Whether you want those skills to include advising you on what you wear, or have a camera-enabled assistant tell you that it notices you don’t eat a healthy low-fat breakfast, remains to be seen.
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