interacting with technology
Story by Lincoln Spector
On Thursday, November 16, Mark Goldman hosted an event at the Ashby Village office where Village members could talk about new and upcoming technology, and whether that technology was right for them. Two young Stanford students, Tania Abedian and Kevin Hsu, led the meeting.
Abedian and Hsu wanted to know how non-techie people, and an older generation, felt about the latest and upcoming products. The two are considering starting a company, and they wanted to get a sense of what delights people. But also what confuses and even scares them. Aside from Goldman, Abedian, Hsu, and myself, 12 Village members joined in. We sat in a circle.
Much of the meeting centered around the Amazon Alexa. If you have a smartphone, you've probably said "Hey Siri" or "Okay Google," after which you'd ask a question or give a command. Alexa offers similar features, except that you don't need your phone. The device sits in your home, and when you call it, it provides the service you asked for.
We asked questions from Alexa and got answers. Abedian, who owns an Alexa, asked to hear NPR, and got it - one of her morning rituals. It can play music from several streaming services, including Amazon (of course), Spotify, and Pandora.
Everyone had their opinions of Alexa's good and bad points. Someone pointed out that it could be lifesaver for elderly people who fall down alone in their homes. They would only have to cry "Alexa, call 911."
Unfortunately, that won't work. Alex can't call 911. [This paragraph was added as a correction on January 4, 2018.]
But there were reasons to be weary. Hsu pointed out that it sometimes "thinks you’re talking to it, even when only the TV is talking." Abedian wondered if "it's recording my whole life?" She did note, however, you can always pull out the plug.
A bigger problem is privacy. Amazon, like all the big tech companies, has a business model built around getting to know you very well - perhaps more than you can like. Do you really want an always-on microphone connected to Amazon? Abedian admitted that "Sometimes I think it’s creepy."
The Amazon Alexa is not unique. Other companies have similar products. Abedian told us that she probably should have bought a Google Home, since it works better with her Android devices.
After the Alexa discussion, Abedian asked about the Village members' favorite new and upcoming technologies. Here are some of the more interesting responses:
- Smart lightbulbs: These can be paired with devices such as the Alexa, but you can also control them with your smartphone, allowing you to remotely turn lights on and off or even change colors. But they're expensive, and they have security problems. Hackers have broken into home networks through these bulbs.
- Bluetooth hearing aids: These sound impressive (no pun intended). They connect to your smartphone, and reduce the ambient noise that's always a problem for the hearing impaired.
- Fitbits and other activity devices: These and other smart watches can count how many steps you take a day, measure your heartbeat, and tell you if you're getting enough sleep. Since they're connected to your smartphone (not physically, of course), you can see who just texted you with a glance at your wrist.
- Unlocked phones: Most phones in this country are locked, meaning they can only be used through your carrier. But that's not the case elsewhere. With an unlocked phone, you can get a SIM card for the country you're in and use it without excessive costs.
The meeting was friendly and interesting. I think everyone discovered something they didn't know.