Now that Amazon’s Echo has found its way into living rooms across the country, Amazon wants to put its latest iteration, the Echo Look, in your bedroom.
Where Echo simply offers voice activated services such as playing music and ordering household supplies, Echo Look houses a camera.
There are all kind of reasons why this is a bad idea. The least of which is Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, tut-tutting over your wardrobe choices.
But let’s take Amazon’s view for a moment to figure out what’s going on here. To continue its assault on traditional retailing (and remember, this behemoth started out selling only books), Amazon must continue to expand into the things we buy every day. The Echo Look is designed to examine how you dress, using artificial intelligence that gets better over time to suggest what you might buy to tune up your wardrobe. Human stylists also work in the background, but the intent is clearly to make clothing recommendations entirely automated.
If this sounds ridiculous, pause to consider how Amazon handles books. I’m constantly surprised by the company’s ability to suggest book titles in line with my previous purchases. Machine learning – in which computers “learn” over time without additional input from programmers – can be downright uncanny. I’m not discounting Amazon’s ability to create a software engine that can gradually master your preferences and suggest comparable choices.
The problem is that to do this, you have to put a corporate camera into your bedroom. The selfies you take with the Echo Look can be used as “LookBooks” to remind you what you wore yesterday, while the company’s algorithms can gradually suss out your habits, advising you when you have departed from the fashion norm and threaten to wear disruptive attire.
Echo Look is all about bringing a personal stylist into your home, and the reason Amazon wants to do that is that clothes and groceries are killer markets, places where the shopping never ends. Not surprisingly, both are areas that CEO Jeff Bezos long ago targeted. Amazon already sells a number of clothing brands in specific markets, but anyone who buys an Echo Look will be adding to the company’s machine learning fodder about the entire clothing sector.
So how smart is it for you to sign on and put yet another camera into your house? You’ve already got one on your smartphone and chances are there’s a webcam on at least one computer in the family. If we have learned anything over the past decade, it’s that almost anything digital can be hacked by someone determined enough to do it. We also have countless examples of webcams being hijacked to make public what should be private.
But let’s put hackers aside for a moment. I find telemarketing calls invasive, especially when Do Not Call lists seem to be nothing but suggestions for further phoning. How much more invasive is a camera from one of the world’s biggest companies that sees not just you but everything around you? From a marketing perspective, this is genius. What new sales can be made from incidental information in the Echo Look selfie you just snapped?
I think this plays on a worrisome trend and extends it. We already yield vast amounts of privacy in order to get a supposed benefit, as when we give information freely to Facebook so we can keep up with what friends and acquaintances are doing. Coupling the consumer instinct that drives the advertising industry to the relaxation of privacy standards moves us into dangerous territory. We need to think about the possible outcomes and slow down.
I admire Bezos and his company. But not here. If you can’t decide for yourself whether your new jacket really goes with that lime green blouse you got for your birthday, ask your spouse or a friend for help. And keep data-hungry cameras out of your home.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.