Amazon’s Alexa event: Here’s everything we want to see – CNET

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Amazon’s Alexa event: Here’s everything we want to see – CNET
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Amazon takes the stage Wednesday to show us the latest hardware and software for Alexa, its digital assistant.


CNET

For the third year in a row, Amazon has something up its sleeve in September. Two years ago, the online megaretailer invited the tech press to its Seattle headquarters to roll out the second-gen version of its smash hit Amazon Echo smart speaker, plus a smattering of other Alexa gadgets. Then, last year’s Amazon fall event saw the arrival of the third-gen Amazon Echo Dot, the second-gen Echo Show, Echo Auto for cars, the Fire TV Recast DVR, and new features and services for Echo speakers, too, like stereo pairing and Alexa Guard.

Well, September’s here again and, sure enough, Amazon has a full day’s worth of product and device announcements set to begin this Wednesday at 10 a.m. PT.

Expect to see some surprises. Last year, the new Echo Dot was all but certain to debut after images of the new Dot leaked in the weeks ahead of the event — but most people had to little to no idea that we’d get an Amazon wall clock, an Alexa microwave, an Echo subwoofer, Fire TV Recast DVR boxes and other unexpected announcements. 

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This year, we’re hearing rumblings about a high-end Echo speaker that might seek to compete with premium competitors like the Google Home Max and the Apple HomePod, as well as rumors of wireless Alexa earbuds, Alexa glasses and even an Alexa robot on wheels. Note that Amazon already announced new Fire TV gadgets last month in Europe, potentially clearing the decks for a full day of Alexa news.

In other words, Wednesday is shaping up to be an awfully busy day for anyone who wants to keep up with the Alexa beat. All predictions aside, here’s what I’m hoping we’ll actually see once the dust settles.

Tighter privacy controls, better transparency

Let’s put the gadget wishlist aside for just a minute and acknowledge the fact that it’s been a dizzying year of privacy disclosures from just about every big name in tech that wants to get its devices into our homes, Amazon included. Most notably, we learned that Amazon hires contractors to listen to user audio snippets in order to refine Alexa’s capabilities. Some had simply assumed this was the case all along — but many users were rightly upset that Amazon hadn’t been upfront about the practice.

Now, users can opt out of letting Amazon listen to their recordings, but that’s still a step shy of Apple, which announced that it would only review Siri audio snippets of users who opt in. I’d like to see Amazon match that policy to make it so nobody’s recordings are listened to without their explicit, active consent. Even better, Amazon should mark the recordings that it’s listening to in the user’s Alexa logs, and give people the ability to review the claim that only a small percentage of user audio is ever processed at all. Other potential privacy-minded moves include making Echo devices less reliant on the cloud, and capable of processing a greater number of user requests and smart home controls locally, without needing to send audio to Amazon’s servers. 

Our personal data is a valuable commodity to the tech industry — but so is consumer trust. Absent any sort of meaningful regulation, it’s up to companies like Amazon to draw the lines with respect to privacy, and up to us as consumers to make informed decisions about whether we’re comfortable buying in. We’ll certainly hear more on privacy from Amazon this week; I’m hoping to hear a better, more transparent pitch than before.

Amazon’s newest smart display, the Echo Show 5, finally added a physical shutter for the camera.


Chris Monroe/CNET

“At Amazon, customer trust is at the center of everything we do and we take customer privacy very seriously,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “We continuously review our practices and procedures to ensure we’re providing customers with the best experiences and privacy choices. We provide customers with several privacy controls, including the ability to review and delete their voice recordings and microphone, and camera-off controls.”

Focus the camera pitch

While we’re talking privacy, let’s talk about cameras. The first two Echo Show smart displays and the mini Echo Spot all included a camera in order to facilitate video chats — but they also omitted a physical shutter to let users cover up the lens, opting instead for a digital kill switch that disables it electronically.

That still asks for too much trust for a lot of folks, so Amazon wisely added a shutter in on its newest smart display, the likable little Echo Show 5. Will it follow suit with the full-size Echo Show, and debut an updated model with a shutter? Or perhaps come out with an add-on shutter accessory for those who already bought one of the original, shutterless models?

Beyond the shutter, Amazon has a new feature called Show and Tell that lets you hold objects in front of the camera and ask Alexa what it’s looking at. It’s pitched as a way to help vision-impaired users identify things like groceries based on their labels. Does Amazon have any other plans to put object recognition to work in its smart displays? 

What about face recognition — and what about the additional privacy concerns that come with it? With other smart displays like the Google Nest Hub Max starting to bring tech like that into people’s homes, I’ll be keen to hear what Amazon’s plans for it are, too. I mean, “Amazon’s Rekognition software can now spot fear” is an actual headline from just last month. Yeah, I’ve got questions.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Less artificial, more intelligent

One of the most interesting things about following the Alexa beat and owning Alexa devices is that you get a glimpse of where we’re at with modern, consumer-grade Artificial Intelligence. Mind you, we’re still a far cry away from Iron Man’s Jarvis. Despite some commendable efforts to make Alexa more conversational, you still can’t quite, you know, have a conversation with it.

And no, I’m not looking to chew the fat with my smart speaker — but I would like to see some progress here. Specifically, I’m hoping to see some new Alexa refinements that make interacting with the digital assistant feel more natural. 

For instance, when Alexa doesn’t understand a request, it’ll often say, “Sorry, I don’t know how to help with that.” What if it was a lot better at asking a quick, clarifying follow-up question in cases like that, the way a human assistant might? If I mishear a single word in something someone says to me, I’m usually able to use the context of whatever they’re saying to realize my mistake on the spot. What if Alexa could do that, too? 

Little things like that could go a long way toward keeping the assistant on the cutting edge — hopefully, Amazon will have an Alexa IQ update for us this week.

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No one asked for an Echo wall clock — but visual Alexa timers that you can track at a glance make plenty of sense. 


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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