April 23, 2018

Voice Activated | Technology in Focus

Smart speakers are becoming part of U.S. households, and there’s a lot that the public needs to know, with libraries well positioned to help

Last month, Yahoo Finance reported that Amazon is working to get its Alexa voice-activated personal assistant “to a point where it’s translating languages for users through any device on-the-fly,” according to several sources inside the company. Tech-focused blogs and websites picked up the story, but it never got much traction in the mainstream press. Maybe it’s a sign of how rapidly artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have been advancing that news of a pending voice-activated, real-time universal language translator, available on a $50 device, was greeted with a collective shrug. Or is it that much of the public is already at least somewhat familiar with the capabilities of voice-activated assistants, which have come preinstalled on their smartphones and PCs for years?

However, now Alexa, Apple’s Siri, ­Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Assistant are entering a new phase, with a growing number of U.S. homes installing “always on” smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. More than 20 million U.S. households owned an Amazon Echo device featuring Alexa in 2017, giving it 73 percent market share of the smart speaker market, followed by Google Home, which held most of the remaining 27 percent, with about seven million households, according to “A Guide to the Security of Voice-Activated Smart Speakers,” a report published by cybersecurity company Symantec in November 2017. And adoption is accelerating. Amazon and Google both reported selling “millions” more during the recent Christmas season.

The most popular uses for these devices include switching on music, asking about the weather or local traffic, setting alarms and reminders, or walking users through recipes in hands-free mode, the report explains. Voice-activated speakers can also interface with other Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as smart TVs, lighting, or thermostats, enabling users to control functions throughout their homes.

The future is now

Keen to cater to this growing trend, several major library vendors have recently launched services that work with these devices, enabling library patrons to ask Alexa and, soon, other assistants to list upcoming library events, get directions to their local branch, ask about operating hours, place holds, or even check out and read borrowed audiobooks.

“OverDrive is developing a series of AI features for the Libby app, including navigation using voice commands,” David Burleigh, director of brand and marketing communication for OverDrive, tells LJ. “The first [Alexa] skills on display at [the American Library Association’s 2018 Midwinter Meeting] included support for Alexa to locate and play audiobooks borrowed from the library. While the demo used Alexa, OverDrive plans to provide support for other ‘smart speakers’ such as Google Home as well as functionality native to Libby.” At press time, the company was planning to demo more advanced voice commands and to present an updated road map for these features at the Public Library Association 2018 conference, March 20–24, in Philadelphia.

In response to customer requests, EBSCO is also leveraging its EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) application programming interface (API) to enable users to access content via Alexa and Google Home. During a presentation at the Electronic Resources and Libraries 2018 conference in March in Austin, TX, Eric Frierson, director of field engineering for EBSCO, used an Amazon Echo to request three different types of information, first asking for “an overview of water shortages,” then for “information on political gerrymandering,” and then for “books like The Maze Runner.” In each case, Alexa responded with relevant information, pulled from EBSCO Research Starters, ­MasterFILE Premier, and ­NoveList, ­respectively.

Demco has also developed an Alexa “skill,” the downloadable apps that allow users to customize the capabilities of Alexa, for its DiscoverLocal service. Libraries began going live with it in recent weeks, enabling patrons to use Alexa to check branch hours and services, place holds and renew items, discover events and register to attend, and reserve meeting rooms.

“It’s in the early stages now, but the rate of adoption for voice [search] and voice assistants is ramping up,” says Ravi Singh, executive director of Demco Software and Technology. “Six to 18 months from now, it’s going to be extremely mainstream.”

Dennis Roche, cofounder of community calendar developer Burbio, agrees. “Voice is going to change everything. [Eventually], we’re going to talk to our phone like it’s a person—in our car, in our house. It’s the future.”

Burbio, often in partnership with municipalities, enables local schools, libraries, and civic and cultural organizations to post upcoming events, which locals can easily sync to their personal Android or iOS calendars for free. Using the Burbio “skill,” those users can also ask Alexa to list upcoming events for the day.

So within the next few months, a student could be given an assignment, use an Echo to access a library database for an overview of a topic, use voice commands to place holds on relevant books at her library, and then ask a car for directions to an unfamiliar branch. It’s very cool stuff, and patrons are already asking libraries for more info.

The Framingham Public Library (FPL), MA, started loaning out Amazon Echo devices through its “library of things” about half a year ago, following an uptick in questions about the devices at its help desk, Director Mark Contois tells LJ.

“We figured we should become a bit more knowledgeable about them,” Contois explains. “We had a lot of people share with us that they were considering purchasing one.”

So, FPL made the Echo available to patrons who were interested in a test-drive, much as it has done with tablet computers and ereaders, or, more recently, Wi-Fi hot spots.

“People can try before they buy,” he said. And if a patron tries a device and decides that they will only need it occasionally, “why buy when they can borrow?”

Always on

Contois does acknowledge that these devices also present privacy and security concerns that new adopters may not fully understand. “We make them aware that they may want to become more knowledgeable about that,” he says. “We do ask patrons, before returning them to the library, to reset everything to the factory settings.”

People with direct access to a smart speaker device—from a child in the household who figures out how to place orders from Amazon using Alexa to acquaintances inside the home who could theoretically hack a device or change its settings without an owner’s knowledge—pose the biggest threat to smart speaker security, the Symantec report notes.

However, voices on the TV, radio, websites, and even other smart speaker devices can also give orders to a smart speaker. Devices near doors or windows may even be vulnerable to being commandeered from outside the home. If a linked email account is compromised, the device can be used to spy on a household, the report states. The most likely attack vector for remote hackers is through security vulnerabilities in streaming services, but so far Symantec has not observed this vector being used “in the wild.”

Nonetheless, “it’s been demonstrated by the [American Civil Liberties Union], as well as security researchers, that these devices can be turned into real-time wiretaps,” notes Alison Macrina, founder and director of the electronic privacy- and security-focused Library Freedom Project and a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker.

Users should also consider the privacy policies of Amazon, Google, Apple, et al. Singh emphasizes that Demco “does not record or store anything” when patrons access library services or information through Alexa and ­DiscoverLocal. Many library vendors will likely follow suit, doing what they can to ensure that the use of their services remains as private as possible in these scenarios. However, he added that “there’s an implicit understanding” that Amazon is collecting and using data gleaned from all interactions with its Alexa.

The implication is that patrons who use Echo or Google Home devices shouldn’t be surprised when they start to see ads on Google or product suggestions on Amazon related to recent library queries. Also, user tracking is really baked in. In February, a Lifehacker.com article, “How To Protect Your Privacy on Your Smart Home Devices,” unironically suggested that concerned Amazon Echo and Google Home users might consider changing their settings to delete all of their voice command data, disable voice purchases, block all incoming calls, and turn off the microphone and camera, all of which would significantly restrict a smart speaker’s functionality.

“I think the first thing is that libraries need to be a lot more skeptical about technology,” Macrina says. “One of the criticisms that I have of…the [library] profession is that there is this push to adopt any new piece of high-tech trash, no matter if it’s something that people actually need, no matter if there are serious privacy concerns…. Privacy is one of our most important professional values…. Take a few minutes, hopefully longer than that, and figure out how it might be misused.”

Voice assistants have exciting potential, but people must realize what they are trading for the conveniences these devices offer and how to keep these devices secure.

It’s perhaps worth noting that while the story of Alexa’s potential real-time language translation feature got a bit buried, spooky, anecdotal reports on social media about Amazon Echo devices suddenly and inexplicably laughing were reported by NPR, the Christian Post, USA Today, the New York Times, The Verge, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker, among many other outlets last month. The public is curious about what makes these things tick. How does it work? What does it track? Why is it laughing at me? Libraries can provide the answers.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com, @matthewenis on Twitter, matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    Can eaudiobooks from providers such as CloudLibrary or Overdrive be listened to via Echo/Alexa? I know the article is arguing caution, but the possibilities of voice activated technology for people with certain disabilities outweighs the cautionary tales and advice in my mind at this point.

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