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.