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Voice assistants all the rage at IFA

August 31, 2018

Voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence are the two main buzzwords at this year's IFA, Berlin's international show of consumer electronics. The emphasis is on user-friendliness, as Sabine Kinkartz reports.

A woman talking to an Amazon Echo Plus
Image: Imago/AFLO

I've finished my work for the day, and I'm feeling hungry. I tell my smartphone app to look for something to eat. It comes up with a low-calorie recipe as my smartwatch indicates I haven't had enough physical exercise to go for anything else. A camera installed in my fridge checks what's available and puts the missing ingredients on a shopping list, which is then passed on to my car-based navigation system.

The car has already worked out the route I need to take to get the food items in question. While I drive, the fridge regulates its temperature, and my oven starts pre-heating, to be ready for action when I return home.

The future is now

What might sound like science fiction is reality for home appliance maker Siemens at this year's consumer electronics and household appliances show IFA in Berlin. "Connected World" is the motto of the event. Be it ovens, washing machines or fridges — the latest generation of all of them is internet-enabled and can be controlled via apps and the human voice.

AI: Friend or foe?

Roland Hagenbucher, managing director of Siemens' home appliance division, believes such developments are already inevitable. "It'll become quite natural to control such appliances with your voice," he said. "That's a big topic at the fair, and we're cooperating with a number of companies to push the underlying technology."

Digital voice assistants such as open platform-based Amazon Echo or Google Home serve as controlling units of the devices. More and more of these smart speakers are making it into people's homes. In Germany alone, some 8.7 million people use them, and the number is growing fast as a recent study by German IT lobby group Bitkom and consultancy Deloitte has shown.

The rise of voice-controlled speakers

"We're witnessing the rapid rise of smart voice assistants," says Bitkom's Christoph Meineke, adding that they're creating a new multibillion-euro market. Even high-end producers of sound systems such as HarmanKardon or Bang & Olufsen can no longer afford to bypass the integration of digital assistants. At IFA 2018, Bang & Olufsen is showing a speaker with an integrated Google Home, fitted with five microphones and serving as more than just a tool to play music — it's conceived as the central control hub of a smart home.

This year's IFA is being attended by 1,800 exhibitors touting anything from the latest high-resolution TVs to household robots. All these devices can be hooked up to digital assistants that can take your commands or act independently. If, for instance, your smartwatch decides that you did not get enough sleep, it will send a command to the coffee machine to make your morning coffee stronger.

Siemens stand at IFA 2018
German engineering giant Siemens says the potential of artificial intelligence outweighs any inherent dangersImage: DW/S. Kinkartz

So, what you get is human beings learning to control machines that promise a more convenient life, check their health and entertain them. The other side of the coin is that huge amounts of personal data get collected in the process, providing everyone who gains access to the data with a huge pool of knowledge. Many users shrug off all related warnings, saying they have nothing to hide anyway.

Unknown capabilities

What's problematic is the combination of all the data that's collected, warns Markus Preuss, a security expert with IT giant Kaspersky. "When the light is switched on or off, I can see from the data when somebody's at home or not, and based on the data sent by your fridge, I can learn a lot about your eating habits," he said.

Food providers and insurance people would certainly be interested to get access to such data, Preuss argues. "If a person follows an unhealthy diet, your health insurance may decide it won't pay for a required operation."

It gets worse when such data get linked to people's social media profiles. "This is when other people start to know more about you than you know about yourself."

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The pitfalls of voice-controlled technology

Data from voice-controlled devices are particularly sensitive, says Preuss. "Language is a very intimate, private instrument, and you should think twice before allowing access to such data." Language says a lot about people's mental health, plus there already systems capable of imitating your voice, causing identity theft issues.

But Preuss agrees that technological progress cannot be stopped, increasing the need for people to be aware of the potential dangers. Everyone needs to understand that the promise of more convenience comes at a high price, and lawmakers are well-advised to regulate the use of the technology in question rather than solely relying on producers' pledges.

Industry plays down the problem

It stands to reason that electronics industry leaders don't think much of tighter regulatory measures. Reinhard Zinkann from the German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers' Association (ZVEI) says you simply have to get used to privacy losing importance.

At Siemens, executives are certain that the measures taken so far to keep sensitive data safe are enough. The company points out that such data would be collected in "neutral" server centers located in Europe, adding that a comprehensive anti-hacking system is in place which also regularly simulates attacks in order to be prepared for real assaults.

Siemens called it far-fetched to believe that a health insurer would be able to look at what's in your fridge in order to analyze your eating habits.

IFA 2018: data-collecting devices at the fore