OK, Computer

Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation I’ve harboured a dream of having a computer like the one on The Enterprise; one that uses natural language parsing to understand your question, can give you the answer to almost anything, and can reply to you audibly. Of course, today this is no longer a dream; with Siri, Google Now* and various similar internet-enabled applications the sci-fi dream is only the press of a button away.

But there’s one important aspect of the Star Trek computer that everyone seems less keen on: the voice command activation. The TV show computer is activated with a prefix: “Computer: …”. Now we have products like Google Glass, Motorola X, and Xbox One Kinect which promise the same functionality (“OK Glass: …”; “OK Google Now: …”; “Xbox on: …”), and the public reaction has tended towards doubt, fear or downright rejection. People I know who are otherwise fully-fledged technophiles have expressed worries about the always-on listener service.

It’s interesting that this reaction has persisted even though representatives of the companies involved have taken great pains to emphasise your privacy. In the case of the Motorola X there is a chip dedicated to only listening for your voice speaking the exact phrase “OK Google Now”, and the Xbox One Kinect behaves similarly, and in neither case is any data sent – or even, as far as I know, a network connection required. But that’s not been enough to reassure some people.

This reaction seems perhaps understandable, except that we carry around with us all day a device fully capable of listening to us and transmitting our words to unknown parties, and at home and work use other devices equally capable of doing the same.

Could this fear be down to timing? This news came at the same time as we heard about the full extent of NSA (or GCHQ here in the UK) spying, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that privacy was foremost in people’s minds.

Is it perhaps a general distrust about what big companies are doing with your data? Google in particular have been fighting many privacy cases in courts across the globe, and a $15 billion lawsuit against Facebook for cookie tracking is still ongoing (I think).

Or are people blanching just because this formalised voice activation now makes it explicit that we can be listened to?

I was genuinely going to make a ‘final frontier’ joke to end this piece, but luckily I thought better of it.

* So pervasive is the image of the Star Trek computer that it’s claimed that Google’s ‘obsession’ is to build their services in its image.