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Amazon's Next Big Bet is Letting You Communicate Without a Smartphone, Says Alexa's Chief Scientist (cnbc.com) 144

An anonymous reader shares a report: The next big function to take off on Amazon's Echo devices will be voice or video calling -- which is a way Alexa can reduce the need to have your smartphone on your at all times, said Rohit Prasad, VP and Head Scientist at Alexa Machine Learning. "If you have not played with calling and the video calls on Echo Show, you should try it because that is revolutionizing how you can communicate," Prasad said in an exclusive interview with CNBC at an Alexa Accelerator event in Seattle Tuesday night. (The event is dedicating to developing new voice-powered technologies.) "When you can drop in on people who have given you access -- so I can drop in and call my mom in her kitchen without her picking any device -- it's just awesome." (Amazon added the ability to call mobile numbers and landlines for free onto Echo devices a few weeks ago.) Amazon doesn't have a smartphone that lets customers bring a digital assistant everywhere -- like Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant -- and communicating through Alexa devices is one way of reducing the need for a personal handset, Prasad said "I can easily drop in and talk to my kids," Prasad says. "They don't have a smartphone so that's my easiest way to talk to them. It's yet another area where Alexa is taking the friction away."
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Amazon's Next Big Bet is Letting You Communicate Without a Smartphone, Says Alexa's Chief Scientist

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  • Home Phone (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @09:51AM (#55389759)

    So I guess we all end up with landlines again...

    • Millennials (Score:5, Funny)

      by Comboman ( 895500 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:15AM (#55389899)
      Yes but Millennials have never had a landline so it's "revolutionary" to be able to make a call from a fixed device without carrying around a smartphone. By the way, have you heard about the new free, wireless music streaming service that doesn't need data called "FM radio"? It's revolutionary!
    • My first guess was that we'd probably start talking to each other again.

      Silly, old me.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      So... I've yet to see folks carry cellphones in StarTrek. They just say "computer", followed by whatever... the communicator is mostly only used when off ship (and mostly only to talk to other crew, not the ship computer), etc.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How do I use Alexa WITH a smartphone? I wish the opposite of this headline was true.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Your mom probably has one. She probably doesn't have internet anyway so Amazon is useless here.

    • by spun ( 1352 )

      If moms don't have Internet, who the fuck is Facebook for?

    • by EvilSS ( 557649 )

      Your mom probably has one. She probably doesn't have internet anyway so Amazon is useless here.

      Showing your age AC. How old do you think the average "mom" is these days?

  • by Zorro ( 15797 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @09:56AM (#55389781)

    I WANT distance from Amazon!

    I WANT a barrier against impulse buys!

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @09:57AM (#55389787)

    Did Orwell's 1984 stop being a basic high school literature requirement in the last 20 years?

    I am continually baffled by the number of people mindlessly signing up for an active listening (and soon, viewing) device in their homes.

    You can just see the incremental push for "new applications" which will ultimately require continuous listening, viewing and remote transcription.

    • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:09AM (#55389863)

      I am continually baffled by the number of people mindlessly signing up for an active listening (and soon, viewing) device in their homes.

      I'm not. It's convenient. We have an Echo in the house and the shop. I have a Google Home as well that we're trying out.

      I also grew up with 1984 but always assumed unless I took precautions otherwise, someone was listening. Always. Maybe it's because I had nutty conspiracy theorist friends in HS (When 'conspiracy theory' was the CIA is listening, not Chemtrail Gay Frogs).

      Even if both devices were actually twice as good as they were they're not hard to outsmart and avoid. It also lets our household blend in with the noise. Amazon (and the CIA) is more than welcome to know how many times my son listens to Thomas and Friends theme song, how many kitchen timers we set and when we turn on and off the lights.

      IF I was planning something it's not that hard to go off grid. You'd think users of Slashdot would know how to setup a VPS in a foreign country accessed only through TOR. NextCloud, IRC servers. Hell a shared document in /tmp that everyone just typed plans into. Just for fun I've set up hidden TOR services: IMAP mail, nginx website, IRC server, PGP keyserver. If you're not sure if you're being infiltrated setup IRL keysigning parties and setup a web of trust.

      So yeah. Hi NSA. Hi CIA. Hi Russia. I know you're listening. I've always thought you were and always lived my life accordingly.

      • IF I was planning something it's not that hard to go off grid. You'd think users of Slashdot would know how to setup a VPS in a foreign country accessed only through TOR.

        So you're a user who normally engages in a lot of easily-sniffable communications, then suddenly you start using a VPN and traffic analysis shows that you're not visiting any of your usual haunts. You don't think that's going to look suspicious?

        • then suddenly you start using a VPN and traffic analysis shows that you're not visiting any of your usual haunts.

          Suddenly? I've had one all along and always visit my usual haunts.

      • by Vektuz ( 886618 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @11:21AM (#55390451)
        The problem with ubiquitous surveillance of the masses is not generally to get that one specific person, its to get the masses to self-regulate and self-report.

        As long as for every 1 of you, there are 100s of 're-educated' upstanding citizens that will do the spying and reporting FOR you, you have no chance.

        This is the real message and threat behind 1984. If you think its about how the government uses its power to specifically target people, you've missed the point. Its about a systematic narrowing of what people can see, how they are raised, and how they are taught to basically program them to truly believe what the authorities want them to believe and behave like the authorities want to behave.

        Basically, the 'boot stamping on a human face forever' is not the surveillance - its the concept that if you can get into this kind of reprogrammed (mentally) society where the number of outliers is small enough to manage by a small security force - mainly because the vast majority of folks really believe in it and are willing to report their neighbors out of fear or true belief - you have reached basically a valley that can be impossible for society to escape out of. It can literally remain in that state forever, as no single individual can ever apply enough pressure or organize with enough others to make any real change.

        The world of Orwell's 1984 is not a world where revolution gently simmers just underneath the surface, held in check only by a tenuous government hold on surveillance. Its a world that has already failed and will fail forever and ever, where the populate itself has already settled into that pattern where outliers get picked out and chewed up by the system due to being vastly outnumbered by the believers, where all is already lost, and would continue to be lost, even without the surveillance equipment. Its really the re-education and re-shaping of society, taking information away, censoring, changing school curriculums, changing what people feel and what they believe, that is what makes it permanent - and it can happen in as little as one or two generations.
        • the silver lining in 1984 is that the proles were more or less 'free' -- and there were enough of them to start a revolution if they ever organized (which admittedly is what the security forces were trying to prevent) -- but the indoctrination and mass control was limited to party members.

          For example: the section where Winston is in a holding tank with a loud and obnoxious prole. The Prole is screaming and yelling at the cops, while the party members are terrified (Winston also picks up on the police offic

        • Because it is so convenient to have Alexa-type or "Ok, Google"-type technology, more and more people will adopt it. So, we Slashdotters who are aware of the technological and techno-political implications of the loss of privacy are fighting a losing battle, if we merely ignore this or decide that we won't buy an Amazon Echo or turn off the microphone permissions on our smartphone. Not only do we miss out on rather amazing technology (which, granted, is not that great a sacrifice), but we can't avoid being

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        When 'conspiracy theory' was the CIA is listening, not Chemtrail Gay Frogs

        Well, the first was right, so now I am not so loud denying the second one. I mean have you SEEN hypnotoad?

    • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:30AM (#55389993)

      Did Orwell's 1984 stop being a basic high school literature requirement in the last 20 years?

      Generation X saw the birth of the internet. They remember and understand the value of privacy. The inherent risks of dismissing privacy and security online were not well known, but as time went on, they became aware. In the early days, dismissing risk was demonstrating ignorance.

      Millennials/Gen Z grew up in the internet era. They've seen the repeated hacks and attacks against privacy and security. They are fully aware of the risks and impact. The IDGAF generation simply doesn't care. The younger generation who dismisses risk today is demonstrating willful ignorance.

      Not only is Privacy dead, but the demand for Privacy is as well.

      I am continually baffled by the number of people mindlessly signing up for an active listening (and soon, viewing) device in their homes.

      You can just see the incremental push for "new applications" which will ultimately require continuous listening, viewing and remote transcription.

      I stopped trying to understand the inherent stupidity in willful ignorance. In the immortal words of Vizzini, it's inconceivable. It can be easily defined in two words today, and follows every EULA that is blindly accepted; I Agree.

    • Did Orwell's 1984 stop being a basic high school literature requirement in the last 20 years?

      Right about the time it became the official establishment instruction manual.

      If ultra-liberalism fails, then they fall back to Animal Farm.

    • Do you have a Samsung TV? A computer? A smartphone? Then you already ARE being listened to. The thing about Alexa is at least it's honest. It doesn't pretend to be a TV and then spy on you. Amazon goes through great lengths to keep your usage private. If you are really paranoid about it, you can actually monitor the bandwidth to see if it's spying on you (hint: it isn't).
      • You cannot possibly believe that amazon will always act in an altruistic manner regarding your privacy? (Or if they somehow buck the overwhelming trend, that they cannot be compelled to violate your privacy, and use anything you've ever said against you at the behest of any TLA, armed with gag orders, secret courts, parallel construction, and whatever mental and legal gymnastics can be summoned for such things.)

        Think about what you're getting with any of these home-assistants, if you don't see that they are

      • How is my Samsung TV listening to me? It doesn't seem to have a microphone nor a SIM to access the cell network, and it's not connected to the internet. Is it sending the audio it captures through it's secret microphone back through the HDMI or the power cable?

    • by lhowaf ( 3348065 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @12:25PM (#55391015)
      Despite privacy concerns, we bought an Echo for my father-in-law who is over 90 years old and lives alone in another city. It is there so he can say, "Alexa, call whats-his-name," even if he had fallen and couldn't get up (sorry, Clapper).
    • Did Orwell's 1984 stop being a basic high school literature requirement in the last 20 years?

      I am continually baffled by the number of people mindlessly signing up for an active listening (and soon, viewing) device in their homes.

      You can just see the incremental push for "new applications" which will ultimately require continuous listening, viewing and remote transcription.

      No, but neither has a Brave New World. Which would make you the John figure running through the streets, knocking the cell phones from people's hands while yelling at them for living in an "empty society", and that they should live by the old ways and flog themselves to remove sin and desire.

    • A 1984 scenario requires a government that is organized and competent. The average citizen has more reason to be worried about rogue cops and incompetent bureaucrats than systematic oppression. We're much closer to Brazil than 1984.
    • It wasn't when I was in high school 30 years ago and I still haven't read it though have read Bulfinch and Tristram.

  • to communicate?

    • Well, they can use Whatsapp and Telegram and you can use instagram on them, and they can connect to Facebook.

      And I heard that the next iPhone is gonna get some kind of voice communication too!

  • Al^H^H Computer. Hello Computer.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, you can already change the name of Alexa to "Computer" if you want to. "Alexa" is really just the device's wake word, and you can change the wake word [amazon.com] to one of these four:

      • Alexa
      • Echo
      • Amazon
      • Computer
  • by enjar ( 249223 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:00AM (#55389813) Homepage

    Needs are things like water, food, shelter and clothing.

    This "need" for a smartphone is more accurately described as Fear Of Missing Out. And, like the monster under the bed that little kids are afraid of, is entirely manufactured in your own mind. Humans survived for millions of years without the "need" for a smartphone at all times. It's probably healthier to leave the thing at home from time to time and enjoy a walk outside, a good book, and being out of touch.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Needs are things like water, food, shelter and clothing.

      This "need" for a smartphone is more accurately described as Fear Of Missing Out.

      It's much more serious than that. I can't poop without a smartphone. Without one, I'd explode.

    • by Luthair ( 847766 )
      Not really true - phones have been pretty necessary for decades. Everything from emergency services to scheduling appointments or contacting customer support.
      • Occasional access to a phone, sure, but it's not now, nor has it ever been, a necessity to have one constantly available.

        Even now, there are lots of people who have no permanent phone service at all.

      • You've just described convenience, not need. Even the emergency services, most often you can take care of by yourself or with a friend/family member.
      • by enjar ( 249223 )

        I was born in the 70's. I somehow made it all the way till the late 90's before I got a mobile phone, and even then it was more for convenience and by no means a necessity. I went to a smartphone later when I got a 3GS used.

        I used the phone plenty before it was mobile. Calling friends, family, customer support, scheduling appointments, colleagues, etc. My desk phone at work or home phone were used for communication daily, multiple times. I even worked a customer support desk a while so I used a phone as a t

    • I agree with you 100%. Just wanted you to know you're far from being alone in your assessment of smartphones and how unnecessarily addicted to them people are -- even if we do seem to be in the minority.

      The person who calls hmself 'Luthair', [slashdot.org] in his comment, doesn't get it at all:

      phones have been pretty necessary for decades. Everything from emergency services to scheduling appointments or contacting customer support.

      None of those things require a smartphone, or even a wireless phone. A landline would suffice.

      I find that most people find excuses masquerading as 'reasons' why they 'need' a smartphone, but they rarely hold up under scrutiny,

      • I do not have nor is it even remotely likely I'll ever have a smartphone.

        So "I don't have a smartphone" has become the new "I don't have a TV" thing to be proud of !~~~

        Jokes aside....

        They're a security nightmare, completely incapable of being secured against intrusion in even the most basic ways, due to a complete lockdown of the OS and the software loaded onto the phone. Worse, many of them have been found to be completely compromised right out of the factory.

        On the other hand, there are viable alternative :

        - Sailfish OS by jolla [jolla.com] is an example of a system that is not locked down, vast parts of it are opensource (under copyleft licesne), most of the remaining not yet copylefted parts are "source available" in practice due to being written in QML + Javascript, and only a few bits are actually closed source (the alien-dalvik android compatibility layer, pre

      • I do not have nor is it even remotely likely I'll ever have a smartphone.

        I do have one, and I really enjoy having it. It's extraordinarily convenient.

        But it's far from a necessity. I agree with you, people should be honest with themselves about this: it's a very handy tool, but people have them because they want them, not because they need them.

        and you have a recipe for never having your privacy, and never having anything on your smartphone secure against intrusion.

        This is actually an easy problem to solve. There are a wide variety of stylish phone cases that double as faraday cages. If your phone is in one of these, it can't talk to anything. Or, you could go cheap and wrap the thing in aluminum fo

      • None of those things require a smartphone, or even a wireless phone. A landline would suffice.

        A landline suffices if it is available. But landlines, payphones in particular, have since been removed from places where they used to be available, on grounds of insufficient revenue to continue maintenance once enough users had switched to mobile phones. And once a landline is no longer available, it no longer suffices.

        Couple all this with the fact that most smartphones can't be completely turned off, can be remotely turned on

        With most modern PCs supporting wake on LAN, how are they substantially different?

        • You can easily turn off Wake On LAN settings for any ethernet interface, that's the difference. Also you don't need a smartphone to call 911 or anyone else, a basic non-smartphone is fine. Very few people 'NEED' a smartphone. Period.
          • Also you don't need a smartphone to call 911

            You don't even need to have an account with a cell phone service provider for 911 access. You just need a basic cell phone that can turn on and talk with a tower. 911 will work whether or not there's an account associated with the phone.

    • Humans NEED social interactions.Technologies that facilitate social interactions are just as important as technologies that facilitate the production of food, shelter or clothing.
      • by enjar ( 249223 )

        Well, good thing I work in an office with work colleagues I've known for nearly two decades, I video/phone conference with colleagues in other countries I've known nearly as long, I live with my wife and kids, I play games with friends, attend events in my community, am a member of a community sailing association and have a landline telephone to call my mom and siblings. None of those things needs a smartphone.

        • Yet, it does seem like you use a lot of technologies, from sailboats to video conferences, to facilitate social interactions. Why bother singling out smartphones for criticism? I don't need a sailboat to make friends, but I don't post comments about putting down sailboats.
  • So they ported Skype to their shitty hardware?

  • MIGHT have something to say about that. ANYTHING that disrupts their business, they will fight, obviously. Maybe if they DROPPED their data rates, it wouldn't be so bad.
    • This wouldn't disrupt their business at all, really. Their business is cell service, and this device doesn't actually replace cell phones.

  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:06AM (#55389847) Homepage

    Often it's with people that are in the same room as I am - no hardware required.

    Anybody else tired of huge companies trying to force solutions on us that we don't need?

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      The technology business over the last 10 years seems to have run out of productive innovations and has turned to non-productive pseudo-innovation designed largely to create rent-seeking opportunities.

      Even companies traditionally tied to productive innovations like Microsoft are now completely reorienting their business model towards actual rent seeking, as in renting you Azure time, renting you the productivity software to connect to the software they rent to you to run on your rented cloud platform, and so

      • I would say it's the opposite; the technology business in the late 90s and early 00s was focused on marketing incrementally better consumer electronics. Most of the companies of the first dot-com boom were basically just setting themselves up as unnecessary middlemen, just on the internet. Now the focus has turned to better AI, self-driving cars, space travel, big data, etc. etc.., which seems a bit more profound than letting people order dog food online.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          Business computing advanced by leaps and bounds from the 80s through the mid-2000s on every front, from storage, to computing to operating systems and networking. It wasn't just consumer electronics, and arguably these didn't really advance much until digital computing got cheap enough to embed in them.

          AI has been in development forever, and besides expert systems getting slightly more experty, nobody has really seen a payoff from this. There are no self-driving cars that aren't glorified lab experiments

        • Except that the crap they're pushing on us calling it 'AI' isn't even really 'AI', it's what used to be called 'expert systems', they can't actually think and never will, they've just been hyped to death to the point where most people believe that these things can actually talk to them like a human being; they CAN'T. The entire approach of the technology is wrong, no matter how many processors or how much data you throw at these things, they will NEVER be able to 'think', and they'll ALWAYS fall short of th
          • by nomadic ( 141991 )

            I use AI in a broad sense to include expert systems. Obviously true AI research has been a multi-decade disappointment, but it got a lot more innovative with the move to expert/self-teaching systems. I think separating to some extent the cognitive neurobiology approach from the algorithmic approach is a good one. After the hubris of the 1960s AI guys (looking at you, Marvin Minsky), I think we should be very careful about predicting what's going to happen in the field in the future. If consciousness/intelli

  • Who doesn't have a smart phone with them at all times? If that's Amazon's market, it's shrinking fast.

  • by Koreantoast ( 527520 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @10:12AM (#55389881)
    So is Amazon trying to position Drop In as a sort of alternative home security solution to check in on your house / spy on your family and tenants? Otherwise, I don't really see the appeal of having someone just connect into your home without a minimal confirmation by the receiving end. If anything, I just see a whole lot of room for creeping control: parents stalking their children, roommates tracking each other, overbearing significant others demanding monitoring access. Of course, there's also the question of hacking or even an easy way for governments to intrude... Seems a bit too much for me. Amazon Echo Show Drop-In Feature is Really Creepy [cnbc.com]
    • Existing home security cameras let you do exactly the same thing except without any notification that they are on.

      You don't need to have an Amazon device to be a creepy stalker.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Pretty soon this technology will be so prevalent that to make a call to anyone in the world, all you have to do is shout "call [name]". The nearest spy node will hear your request and connect you to the node your friend is closest to.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    calls I can't prevent by turning off my phone.

  • I would like there to be at least a small barrier to communicate with me so people will stop to think about what they are saying and if it is worth the effort to say it. Hive mind is pretty dystopian IMHO.
    • I agree.

      In fact, I wonder how this plays socially. Right now, it's widely considered rude to call someone without texting them first (except if its an emergency). In order to function properly, this would have to go against social conditioning.

  • "If you have not played with calling and the video calls on Echo Show, you should try it because that is revolutionizing how you can communicate," Prasad said

    Who actually believes this swill?

  • So Amazon is trying to say that their tech is going to power the shipboard communications of our starships?

    But snark aside, it actually would be a pretty impressive feat, if you think about it. You tell the local device who you are ("Picard...") and who you'd like to connect with ("... to Riker...") and the device communicates with the broader network, automatically geo-locates your intended recipient, activates the communicator on their end, replays your query for them to receive ("Picard to Riker.") and

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      Parent calling Joey: Joey, we need to talk about sex.

      Joey: Ma...not now, I have a friend over.

      Parent: That's okay, I don't mind.

      Joey: Later Ma (hangs up)

      Parent: Joey, this new gizmo is amazing, I can restart a communication really quick. Now about sex, did you pack you condoms?

      Joey: (in an aside to Elizabeth, hehehehehe....Ma likes her little jokes) Ma, I'll call you later.

      Alexa: Alexa here, I hear you want to talk about sex, let me list some of the sex manuals at Amazon.com....

    • I give it one generation until nobody wants this to be NEAR them anymore, given the amount of helicopter parents already going on their kids' nerves.

    • by vux984 ( 928602 )

      1) We've been almost there for a while.
      I've been able to dial by voice to a contact forever.

      I've been able to set a custom ring tone forever. e.g. if I'm riker and picard is calling, i could have my ringtone set to 'picard to riker'.

      I've been able to answer a call by voice forever.

      And all the neat stuff about communicating with the broader network, locating my intended recipient, and activating the communicator on their end ... is called a cell phone.

      The sum total of the innovation you propose is that inste

    • Hospitals already have these devices, you can even query someone's physical location a la Star Trek.
  • Apple has done this for several years. If you're iPhone is on the same network as your other iCrap devices, you can answer a call/text/video message on your ipad while your phone is in the other room.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    My only problem with Amazon or Google doing it is you know they will be constantly listening and looking for ways to sell your personal info to any company / government willing to pay a $1.
  • People to allow a telescreen err echo in everyone's homes that allows them to record and listen to everything in ones house.

    I will NEVER own one and i'm happy to admit I plucked out the microphone on my firestick's remote.

  • I remember the first 25 years of my life and just how awful it was not being able to communicate!
  • When you're at home, you can talk to your family when they're also at home.
    Pure genius, I say.
    The millennials don't know that feeling, that we old farts had for a hundred years of so.

  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @01:35PM (#55391547)

    When you can drop in on people who have given you access -- so I can drop in and call my mom in her kitchen without her picking any device -- it's just awesome."

    He and I have different definitions of "awesome". For example, I think it's rude to simply drop in on someone at home w/o prearranging it or calling first - not even, or especially, by my mother. So, I would never enable or use this feature - nor would I ever have one of these spy devices in my home.

    • I'm not so enthused about this feature either, but in what way is calling rude? I prefer calling over email if the latter will likely result in an ongoing chain, but figured if the other person is busy, I'll just leave a message. First time I ever considered it being rude (unless after 8 PM or so).

      • I'm not so enthused about this feature either, but in what way is calling rude?

        The Amazon drone is talking about a video chat application on the Echo Show device, so it's more than a phone call. Having a device that can auto-accept a two-way video session seems problematic -- best not have an Echo Show on the bedroom side-table -- which is actually where their TV commercial shows it being used.

  • by hackel ( 10452 ) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 @02:02PM (#55391743) Journal

    People already don't make voice calls anymore. How exactly is this supposed to "revolutionize" anything? I'm certainly not going to be more likely to interrupt someone's day with a voice cal (how rude!) simply because I can do it with my voice instead of pressing a few buttons on my phone.

  • you just need to go outside and talk to real people. Oh wait...

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