The Amazon Echo, which came out in 2015, is a smart speaker that responds to voice input. Amazon just released an update, called Echo Look, which not only includes the Alexa voice-response system but also has a camera, so it can both listen to you and look at you. It’s designed to sit in your bedroom and serve as some kind of fashion aide. Here’s how Jessi Hempel of Backchannel described it at the start of a short discussion: “Speak to the white oblong assistant, and it will take selfies of your outfits and let you consult style experts to improve them.”
Am I the only person who thinks this might have profound consequences for relationships, maybe good, maybe bad? Or that it might, on the other hand, bomb altogether? If your partner hates shopping with you, because you have to be coaxed and coddled and practically bribed into buying anything at all, they’ll be relieved when it’s the online assistant whose patience is being challenged. If your shopping friend has been trying to get you to stop wearing loose pullovers because they make you look slovenly, or stop wearing tight jeans because you’re too old for it, and you never listened, but Echo Look tells you the same thing (maybe more tactfully) and you pay attention, then your friend may be miffed. If you’ve always liked the way Tom Ford dress shirts look, though it’s mainly because Tom Ford looks good in them, and Echo Look persuades you to overspend on buying some, your partner, who always kept you away from the pricey boutiques, will be mad either at Echo Look or, more likely, you.
I can see another potential problem. Your partner and your shopping friend know things about you without having to be told. If you tell them you want something new for work, they already know what that means. Maybe you meet clients for a law firm that represents a lot of young, freewheeling tech companies, and your firm dresses down a little so as not to seem stuffy but dresses up enough to seem respectable and worth the price, and with a splash of style here and there so you look imaginative instead of dull. You don’t have to explain that to anyone who’s close to you. You do have to explain it to the style assistant—because I doubt you can convey all that by putting on one work outfit for the camera—and if you have to explain it every time you use Echo Look to buy work clothes, you’re going to get tired of it.
But the fun issues arrive with the really tricky questions. Is the style assistant ever going to say—as your partner sometimes has to, and you hate it but you know she’s right—“You’re not wearing that, are you?” And I really want to know how it’ll deal with “Does this make me look fat?”
Other details interest me too. Who is this so-called style expert—a person, or a machine-learning system? I gather it’s a combination of both. How does the style expert make suggestions? By sending me an email or a text with pictures? Hardly anyone is going to buy an Alexander Wang shirtdress that costs $425, even if the style expert says it’s the one that Malia Obama recently wore, without getting a look at the shirtdress. (Which you can do here, in case you care.) No box with a camera in my bedroom can show me clothing or accessories, so there’s got to be more to the process. Another obvious question is whether the style expert will ever recommend anything beyond what’s available from Amazon. If it won’t, this will eliminate the Tom Ford and Alexander Wang examples I gave—you can’t buy either from Amazon—but at the cost of reducing the value of the service.
There are potential legal and security issues as well. Because the Echo is always listening to the environment it’s in, waiting to be addressed by name (it ignores anything not prefaced with “Alexa,” just as the Google Home device listens for “OK, Google”), law enforcement has already asked for data from Amazon. The request was rejected. Sooner or later, Amazon will probably be asked about video as well as audio data from Echo Look. The response will presumably be: no, you can’t have it, and besides, the camera isn’t even on most of the time. But is it possible for hackers to turn it on? Will you have to drape the thing like a birdcage at night?
Answers are probably out there, but the Backchannel post, which is all I’ve read so far, doesn’t provide them. A little clarity is provided by the Amazon product page, which is here. I paid little attention to that in writing this, because, in my self-centered way, I was more interested in what I could imagine about the Echo Look than in what it actually does.