Figuring out how to implement multiple assistants from a technical perspective isn’t even the hardest problem
Specifically, since Amazon has repeatedly said it is happy to have Alexa coexist with any other assistant, is Google disallowing it? Leblond demurred, but he did bring up the fact that there are lots of things that could go wrong with two active assistants on a single speaker. For example: if you set an alarm with one assistant and aren’t around when it goes off, how will your family know which assistant to tell to shut up?
If there’s anything the past year has taught us, it’s that few people realized the full extent to which voice assistants were collecting our data. Rolling scandals have hit Amazon, Google, and Apple over their practices of having human reviewers check the quality of transcriptions. All three have changed course significantly, increasing transparency and making it easier to opt out, delete your data, or both.
For example, he believes there ought to be strict rules where one assistant would never be allowed to “listen in” on a conversation with another assistant. That seems simple, but there are tougher problems. Should the majority of the work involved in listening to different wake words be handled by hardware or software? When Limp says that he envisions “voice assistants [could someday] collaborate in the cloud in a private way on behalf of customers in a way that preserves context and continuity,” how exactly will that privacy be ensured?
And it gets even thornier: a common issue over the past year has been the realization that these assistants are accidentally recording without hearing their wake word. So in a world where a speaker could have two or a dozen different assistants ready and waiting, what happens to those accidental recordings?
A 25-company consortium wanting to make it easy for multiple assistants to coexist doesn’t sound like a great recipe for privacy, either
There are no clear answers to these questions yet, six weeks after discussions about forming the initiative got serious, only a commitment to figuring them out. I asked Sonos if there are meetings or contracts or even dues, and the answers were nope, nope, and nope. It’s all very early.
I tried to pin down Leblond on the reason why this isn’t the way the Sonos One works, as I have several times over the past couple of years
Amazon, especially with Alexa, has a reputation for moving quickly to broaden its ecosystem, sometimes at the expense of clarity or software quality. Just think about the early days (and some more recent ones) of using skills with Alexa, which often require stilted, specific commands. This time around, at least, Amazon doesn’t seem to be rushing.
“We’re five years into this,” Limp says. When he looks at the technical and privacy issues here, he believes that “it’s a tractable problem, but not a trivial problem. It is going to take many, many years to solve.”
It’s a strategy already playing out on PCs. Amazon’s voice assistant is being more tightly integrated into Windows 10, allowing locked PCs to respond to general queries when someone shouts “Alexa” from across the room. Microsoft’s Cortana is being refocused on interactions with the company’s software and services.
But there’s not really a technical limitation there. Antoine Leblond, vice president of software at Sonos, demoed a Sonos One speaker working with both the “Alexa” and “Hey Google” wake words active for me over a video conference call yesterday. It worked perfectly fine, including Sonos’ “continuity” feature that lets you start music with one assistant then control it with the other.