By Megan Bozman

Amazon Echo was released nearly two years ago, with “Alexa” as its voice and brains. The iPhone 4S came with personal digital voice assistant “Siri” in 2011. And Google Home was launched this past May.

As written in Investor’s Business Daily, “Amazon, Apple and Alphabet are strengthening their connection to customers with in-home devices infused with advanced speech recognition and artificial intelligence. Google Home imageFacebook and Microsoft are tapping into software apps for smartphones called bots, software that performs automated tasks. All aim to be first in line to reap the billions of dollars that digital assistants and bots are expected to bring.”

David Schubmehl, AI analyst for tech research firm IDC states, “With all these AI-based technologies, we’re only about 5% of the way into where this is going to be in the next 10 to 15 years.” While still in need of refinement, AI-based digital assistants continue to grow in both consumer and enterprise use.

Devices Fade Away, Computers = Intelligent Assistants

“The next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai in April. “Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day.” Mr. Pichai also called AI “a seminal moment in computing… It’s clear to me that we are moving from a mobile-first to an AI-first world.”

New Google Smartphones with Google Assistant

In a hardware launch event Tuesday, Google parent Alphabet announced two new smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL. The company is now a vertically integrated device maker — controlling hardware as well as software and ecosystem design.

In addition to excellent cameras and fully unlimited cloud storage, the phones are the first to have Google Assistant built-in.

The new Google smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL are the first to have Google Assistant, the company’s artificial intelligence-based assistant, built-in.

Walt Mossberg refers to the phones and Google Home as, “important vessels for the technology it believes is the key to the entire future of tech: artificial intelligence.

While digital assistants aren’t new, some key differences of the new phones are the connection with Google’s knowledge graph, and recollection of the context of your questions.

Not OK Google, Privacy Concerns

Also announced Tuesday was a new feature of Google Home assistant: a one-touch mute button to ensure privacy.

In a piece for TechCrunch entitled, “Not OK, Google,” Natasha Lomas writes, “Alphabet’s ambition for the Google brand is clear: it wants Google’s information organizing brain to be embedded right at the domestic center — i.e. where it’s all but impossible for consumers not to feed it with a steady stream of highly personal data. (Sure there’s a mute button on the Google Home but the fact you have to push a button to shut off the ear speaks volumes… )”

Fair point indeed. The speaker is entirely voice-controlled. Voice-activation is a main feature and part of the appeal of the product. To fail to apply that functionality to the mute button must have been a deliberate choice. Although perhaps they did so to help users feel comfortable that the mute has actually occurred. There’s still something satisfying and reassuring in the act of physically pushing a button.

“And now Alphabet is seeking to accelerate that process with a consumer facing, AI-powered service layer that works to make Google just as hard to avoid as it used to be, back in the days of the simpler desktop web.

“But what’s really not ok, Google is the seismic privacy trade-offs involved here.”

Technology Thinking For Us

Ms. Lomas goes on to state that Google’s products “are designed to nudge users to share more and think less.” Last I checked, ‘thinking’ is simply being an adult. Something we’re responsible for on our own. Not something corporations selling us products are liable for encouraging.

As technology becomes more deeply embedded in all aspects of our lives, we have to take responsibility for making our own choices about how to leverage it, if at all. As a parent, I’ve made the choice to minimize my children’s screen time and attempt to reduce their exposure to addictive gaming.

The simple fact of the matter is that by collecting more information, digital assistants can be more effective and helpful. We can all choose to opt out. You just have to weigh that choice. Personally when my phone alerts me to an accident on the highway before I get on that highway, and without me having to pull up Google Maps to view traffic, I’m happy my droid knows where I’m going!

I started this article in an uncharacteristically low-tech manner: physical paper!
I started this article in an uncharacteristically low-tech manner: physical paper!
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