It’s Black Friday, and throngs of people are shopping for deals on virtual assistant-powered smart home devices from the likes of Amazon and Google. The initial appeal of smart speakers, smart displays, voice-controlled lights is obvious, and according to Strategy Analytics, growth in the smart speaker segment alone is expected to grow 57% by the end of 2019. But as we consider whether these devices will make our lives easier or better, are we giving enough thought to the trade-off between convenience and privacy?
It’s essentially the same paradigm, writ small, that the world is facing with AI in general: AI has delivered unprecedented capabilities, but it has also engendered an uneasy sense that we’re losing control over these new tools and technologies. But when you consider buying a device for your home that has an AI assistant on board, you can focus on the questions you should always ask of technology: Does this technology make my life better or easier? What are the trade-offs, and are they worth it for the convenience?
Although those are heavy questions generally, when it comes to Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend and you’re looking at a killer discount on some smart home device and wondering if you should click the Buy button, it’s less of an existential conundrum and more of a practical one. What will you use a Google Home Mini for, exactly? Do you really want to turn on music in your kitchen every day by shouting at an Amazon Echo Studio that gets your request right only most of the time? What is the purpose of a “smart” night light?
Yes, a smart night light. That’s a real thing that exists in the extended universe of Alexa-compatible smart home products. And its utter banality serves as an excellent illustration of why we need to ask ourselves those aforementioned questions.
This particular smart night light is made by Third Reality and is certified as “Made for Amazon.” It’s actually an accessory that attaches to the Amazon Echo Flex. The Flex is a palm-sized device that plugs into your wall outlet and can control things like your lights and thermostat. It has its own little mic and speaker that let you not only control Alexa, but talk to people through other Alexa devices in other rooms like an intercom. In a way, the Flex is almost an accessory itself, because it’s designed to be a part of a larger network of Alexa devices rather than a standalone device. It has a USB port on the bottom where you can charge a phone or plug in an attachment, such as a smart night light.
The smart night light becomes part of your Alexa device list, and you can manage and control it remotely with the Alexa app on your phone. Features include the ability to adjust the brightness from 1% to 100%, choose from a variety of colors, and determine when the light goes on or off.
In other words, it does everything a night light does, but with brightness and color options, and you have to manually set when it turns on and off. In addition to the time you have to spend setting it up and configuring the settings, the smart night light costs $15, and the Flex costs $20. You can buy them together for $32.
By contrast, you can get a four-pack of non-smart night lights for $9 on Amazon. They turn on when they sense that the light in the room is too low. They shut off when the light becomes brighter. Installation comprises plugging them into a wall outlet.
Arguably, the non-smart night light is already a perfect product — cheap, easy to install, reliable, purpose-built — so why does the smart night light exist? Sure, it’s neat to be able to do things like adjust brightness, pick fun colors, and control it with your phone, but you’d have to stretch to make the case that it’s making your life better. It’s certainly not making anything easier than non-smart night lights, and it’s not more convenient. And it costs more money.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a silly, fun device, and there’s nothing wrong with paying a little more for it than you need to. But there is a larger cost to consider: Amazon has grand plans for your home. The company is clear that it wants to put Alexa everywhere it possibly can, and just this week it rolled out increased abilities to build its intelligence to even more IoT edge devices with AWS IoT Core and enabled Alexa controls for new classes of objects in the home. Like other major virtual assistant platforms, Alexa devices record audio of your commands, necessitating oversight by you, the user. There are problems with Alexa’s user-submitted answers, too. Amazon also owns video doorbell maker Ring, with its troubling privacy and surveillance concerns, and it makes the controversial Rekognition facial recognition technology. This is not to mention its extensive AWS services.
When you buy that little smart night light and the Flex to go with it, you’re buying further into an ecosystem of devices, services, and technologies that’s entirely controlled by Amazon.
This is not an argument that you should or should not buy into that ecosystem; it’s a reminder that when you buy a smart device, you’re not just buying a product with some extra features. That’s not how AI-powered products work.
Buy your smart device or give some as gifts, or don’t, and be happy with your choices. But like all emerging and transformative technologies, don’t forget to ask yourself what it will give you, and what it will cost. And then when it comes to larger decisions about building, buying, or creating AI technologies for your company or organization, ask the same questions.