When I blindly pre-ordered the Amazon Echo early about two years ago - another one of those unexpected Amazon Prime perks - I wasn't really sure what to expect of it.
Is it just a fancy cylindrical 360-degree Bluetooth speaker with convenient but ho-hum voice controls? Will it merely be a coffee-table Siri clone that I will occasionally utilize but eventually ignore? Or could it be a direct-line Amazon shopping portal that will automatically buy Amazon stuff for you?
With my early adopter senses tingling, I just had to find out what this new gizmo was all about. The Echo's technical specs and promising functions were intriguing enough to warrant a "Pre-order Now" click, especially at a half-price discount.
Fast forward to today and I'll have to admit I totally get it now - the Amazon Echo, or as we lovingly anthropomorphize as "Alexa," is my most used "smart" appliance in the house. With its ever-growing skill set, it is now an integral part of our budding smart home.
Even after two years, Alexa's virtual-assisting skill set is still entertainingly surprising and practically limitless.
..."Alexa, turn off the bedroom light" ..."Alexa, play Marconi Union from Spotify" ... "Alexa, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?" ... "Alexa, when was 'The Lobster' movie released?" ..."Alexa, please set a timer for 15 minutes" ..."Alexa, find my phone." "Alexa, give me the news."...
Smitten by what it does, I actually purchased the recently released Echo Dot Gen 2 to pepper around the house for a wider and an almost omniscient Alexa household coverage.
Is this pervasive presence a good thing though? With the release of the Google Home to compete with the Echo, these "little-helper" appliances/computers are poised to take over our homes, turning them into earthbound "Star Trek" mini-Enterprises.
With their always-listening nature, isn't that a creepy Orwellian Big Brother privacy nightmare waiting to happen?
Where doth our voices go?
According to Amazon's Echo and Echo Dot FAQs, when Alexa detects its wake word (and glows blue), it streams "a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word" to the "Cloud" (Amazon's servers) and closes once your command has been processed. That fraction of a second, of course, gets saved along with your main command.
Google Home operates in a similar way. It listens constantly (and records) in "short snippets" for the hotword "OK Google" and if it detects it, its LED lights activate and the recording (which includes the hotword) is then sent to Google's servers.
Judging by how both virtual assistants work, it's safe to assume that they record all the time and they store the recordings locally, albeit temporarily, for parsing before they get streamed and sent to the Cloud servers for processing. If the keyword or hotword is not detected, the audio snippet is deleted.
Deleting the recordings
Here's the creepy part, Amazon and Google keep an audio recording of each and every voice command you've issued to Alexa or Home in their respective servers.
Why so? Amazon claims that it keeps the recordings to improve and enhance your user experience. The Echo uses these recordings to fine tune its comprehension by creating your unique voice profile.
Google uses the voice data to make their services "faster, smarter, and more useful". This information is also used to provide a more personalized experience across all Google services.
On the Echo side of things, you can review your voice log with the Alexa app on iOS and Android and you can actually scroll through your activity and listen to each recording. It's a bit tedious but it's possible to go back and listen to the very first command you've ever uttered to Alexa. There's nothing like hearing your two-year-younger self say "What's the weather?"
You can, of course, delete a recording by removing the associated "command card" on the Alexa app. You can also delete all the recordings in a single click by managing your Echo at the "Manage Your Content and Devices" page at www.amazon.com/mycd.
Amazon warns that "deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience" so please do this with caution.
Google likewise saves a recording of each voice command given to Home. To view this data, open the Google Home app for iOS and Android and on the left drawer, tap on More Settings >> My Activity.
Here, you can view each Google Home command recording your account has made accompanied by the time, date and the request. To delete a recording, just tap on the menu button and select Delete. You can also visit myactivity.google.com to view and delete your My Activity data.
Both companies claim that all recordings saved on their servers are encrypted to protect sensitive information.
Muting the mics
For privacy, both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home let you mute their respective microphones with a physical button.
To turn the Echo's mic off, press the microphone off/on button on the top of the device. Whenever this button is red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, just press the button again. To mute Google Home, press its physical mute button located at the back of its shell. Similar to the Echo, if this button is activated and lit, the mic is off.
Muting the mics will stop the Echo and Google Home from listening but disabling the mics will definitely defeat the raison d'étre of these virtual assistants. The always-on, always-listening nature of these smart virtual assistant speakers is what makes them truly compelling gadgets to have.
Google Home is now available for $129.
For further reading: