For anyone who ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and totally missed the point, robot assistants have long been a sci-fi dream. While the original Amazon Echo – a plastic tube with a microphone and a robot assistant named Alexa in it – was a good first step, we’re entering a new frontier with the Amazon Echo Look, which, just like HAL 9000,
will sentence you to a cold death in outer space critique your outfit.
Echo Look is one of two new models of the popular voice-activated speaker from the retail giant along with Echo Show. What do they have in common? Along with a microphone, these new Echos feature a video camera, giving your robot assistant an eye to go with their ears.
People were a little concerned about privacy with the original Echo – is it really a good idea to pay a giant retail organization to place a microphone in your home? – but now that the Echo has a video camera strapped onto it, people are justifiably freaking out a little bit.
If the Echo Look is smart enough to critique your outfit, what else could it do? An obvious example is scanning your body to see if you’re pregnant, prompting Amazon to start showing you a lot of new baby items. Or it could see that you’re overweight and show you Richard Simmons workout video tapes. Or it could see that you’re in a bad mood and are more likely to shop to make yourself feel better. The possibilities go on and on.
Of course, the Echo Look is not currently sophisticated enough to do that. We don’t even know how good it will be at analyzing outfits – currently, the only task it’s confirmed to do with that fancy camera. But as Backchannel points out, the original Echo "under-promised and over-delivered," eventually gaining many abilities beyond playing music and telling you the weather. The Amazon Echo Look is primed to do the same.
How would the Amazon Echo Look get smarter? Your pictures, of course. While the Echo Look is critiquing your outfit, it’s also gathering a ton of data from thousands, potentially millions of customers. And it’s not only getting a picture of your clothing – it’s getting your body type, facial expression, hairstyle, and more.
Of course, maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Take Alex Cranz at Gizmodo, for example. Faced with a security expert telling her that Amazon Echoes could easily be used by law enforcement to spy on private citizens, Cranz shrugs, writing, "I don’t especially care." Cranz – and many others who shrug at privacy issues – have grown up in a world where people share by default. "I was confessing major lusts in AOL chatrooms in my early teens, detailing personal tragedies on Livejournal in my late teens, and announcing my bowel movements on Facebook in my 20s," Cranz writes.
But this argument is invalid; you cannot conflate information you willingly share with information that is harvested from you. The Amazon Echo Look sits somewhere in-between. You are willingly giving Amazon the information they need to critique your outfit, but you’re also – perhaps unwittingly – giving them the information they need to build a smarter Alexa. The Amazon Echo is not the only product that sits in this middle ground. Facebook and Google take your data and give it to advertisers, whether it's your public status about pooping or your "private" emails.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are with putting a camera in your bedroom or a microphone in your kitchen. Just don’t be surprised if news breaks that Amazon has been using your data for somewhat nefarious means, or that an authoritarian government has been using Echoes to spy on political dissidents.