Microsoft just revealed its brand-new Xbox One games console and Kinect sensor. The two devices are jam-packed with impressive next-generation technology that will keep gamers and TV watchers enthralled. But here's one thing you may have overlooked about the Xbox One: It's a perfect, permanent, living room spy device.
We're talking, of course, about the One's impressive voice-recognition tech:
This is game-changing technology in action. For the Xbox to be able to turn on, identify who you are, and log in to your profile at a moment's notice—simply at the sound of the voice command "Xbox on"—it needs to do something a bit creepy: It has to be listening to what people are saying in your living room all the time.
Now there's no reason to think Microsoft is doing anything nefarious here. Your voice commands probably never go beyond the processors inside the machine, and in any case, it's unlikely that a record of you saying "watch ESPN" or some other command is going to be problematic (although it's easy to imagine tricky circumstances surrounding commands like "Watch Playboy"). We're checking with them on this, but Microsoft almost definitely is not recording, let alone uploading and archiving, every sound that happens in your living room 24-7-365. That said, the fact remains that there is a microphone in your home that's always live and connected to some super-smart computing devices—and a very distant server.
There's a word for that sort of thing, one that's loaded with frisson-inducing James Bond emotions. It's bug.
Microsoft is not alone in pursuing this sort of system and, if a recent investment by Samsung and Intel is anything to go by, some companies have a very definite buglike tech on the way. Along with European cell phone network Telefónica, both Samsung and Intel recently made a strategic investment in a company called Expect Labs.
Expect Labs made a smartphone app called Mind Meld that demonstrates their listening tech expertise. Mind Meld can listen to the online conversation of a group of people, and detect what they are talking to such a high level of automatic detection of content and context that it can magically suggest online sources of information that might interest the group.
The company's founder, Timothy Tuttle, spoke to The Verge about this system, and explained that this sort of "anticipatory computing" could be very useful for distance learning, or perhaps job interview situations during which an interviewer meets a candidate: Their conversation could be better supported with background information available online.
But Tuttle's goal is much bigger than facilitating people's educations and careers. He imagines a near future during which our homes are packed with tablets, smartphones, and even built-in computer tech that benefit from anticipatory computing. All these machines, Tuttle said, "are going to listen to everything you say and be able to assist you with the right song, map, or recipe, without you even having to ask."
In a slightly different implementation, the BBC has just unveiled an experimental audio device that hints at what future-generation radio systems may be like. The music world is changing dramatically as more music goes online, of course, and we've already seen innovations like Apple's Genius system, which can put together a pleasing mix of tracks for you based on the sound and feel of a piece of music you're listening to.
But the BBC's Perceptive Radio takes this technology into a whole new world: It can adjust the content it plays based on subtle cues like location, time, how close the listener physically is to the radio and, crucially, noise the device can hear in the surrounding environment. It's an interesting research idea, part science and part art, and it too points to a future where our devices are listening to us and monitoring us in several ways.
All these different systems are benign, and when they and their tech offspring become more mainstream, their dynamic nature will certainly make many digital experiences much more interesting. They can be compared to Google's Now service, which tries to preemptively assist your daily life by automatically showing you weather data or commuting information based on your habits.
But Now relies on some pretty personal data logging, and Google has already fallen under scrutiny for its data-scraping habits. Similarly, Apple's Siri has become the subject of over-enthusiastic criticism because when you use it, Apple retains an anonymized sample of your voice in order to improve Siri's accuracy. Apple has also been hit by a minor privacy scandal over its positional data-logging that it, and many other similar A-GPS services, use to improve the speed and accuracy of smartphone GPS.
How comfortable would you be with the idea that a Google, Samsung, or Apple device was actually listening to what you say all the time, everywhere you go, no matter who you're talking with or the exact subject of your discussion? It's a good question. Here's a better one: How much would you trust these firms to maintain your privacy, to keep your data safe and not to share it with ad companies or the authorities?
James Bond's Q-Division: Eat your heart out.