Summoning the Digital Genie

I’ve always wanted to be able to freely summon the internet by voice, and have it respond (in natural language no less) as I go about my daily tasks. Honestly, what would be easier than to just speak up from wherever you are? Which is why I was really interested to hear about Amazon’s new Echo.

For those of you not familiar, it’s a a hybrid speaker with voice recognition to answer certain questions and do certain tasks. It’s an inexpensive speaker and answer genie that responds to you throughout your home. “Echo – read me a recipe for pumpkin pie!” “Echo – add milk to my shopping list!” Things like that. Things that make life easier – no messy hands or actual moving involved.  Here’s the video that explains what it can do and how it works.


It’s no coincidence, though, that it’s AMAZON’s new product (a shopping retailer). The truth it that it’s an amazing way to learn about your needs, wants, and preferences – all of which can be tied back to recommending products.

Is this necessarily bad? I’m not sure. Ideally of course this just enhances your life: instead of being barraged with irrelevant things, you’re targeted with much more personalized suggestions. Many find this creepy though; that’s up to the user to decide. Forbes magazine did a nice roundup of all the type of information Echo *could* eventually glean from responding to your requests and surroundings here.

What’s less obvious is the impact of “always on” listening, as Sean and I have wrangled over in the last few days. The potential for future misuse is indeed, huge. Although Echo isn’t reporting on your conversations (pinging the internet), as it currently is only listening for the “wake” word, Amazon has been very noncommittal in their privacy statement about future use of the data gathered. and indeed – whether future versions of Echo won’t be recording *everything* that’s being said as a default.

But always on listening – whether it’s Echo or another future version (and there will be others) – is going to happen, and eventually become so “normal” (as cell phones have) that most people will dive in head first, without always stopping to think of the implications. After all, it’s so *intuitive* and easy to use, and makes life so much easier, why wouldn’t you? It does have some serious “Big Brother” potential though.

We scream about privacy, yet hand it over so easily when enticed by a bright shiny new toy. To whom are we selling our souls? Digital genie, or digital Pandora’s Box?

I have no answers. My guess is that privacy concerns will disappear as the “always on” generation swims like fish in the water they’ve always lived in, and dinosaurs (like me) die out.

Defining innovation

Flare Pan
The jet inspired Flare Pan design

I was stunned when, after posting this article on Facebook the other days, I got pushback that it wasn’t really an “innovation” because it was too simple:

The design came about this way. Professor Tom Povey – who actually works as an engineer researching the design of high-efficiency cooling systems for next-generation jet-engines (he’s a real rocket scientist!) – was waiting for a pan of water to boil. As he waited, he mused on how much energy was being wasted by heat loss from inefficient pan design. Using his training and background, he developed the “Flare Pan” which basically increases the amount of contact surface with cooking heat, speeding up how fast things cook and using less energy in the process.

I think that’s really cool. Think about it: the shape of pans basically hasn’t changed in a millenia. Millions of people have used pans and while the Chinese *did* helpfully come up with a useful aphorism to explain the process (a watched pot never boils) very few have actually done anything to improve on it.

His design is so simple, so elegant…and indeed – obvious! And it solves a real challenge, provides a real benefit.

But isn’t that what innovation is all about? It doesn’t have to be radically different to be truly revolutionary. So I respectfully disagree with the naysayers: this is the *essence* of innovation.

What do you think?