The smartness of devices was first coined by Alan Turning in 1950: devices can become smart if they are fitted with an expensive organ which can then be trained to learn and interact with human beings or other devices. Devices are becoming smart by engaging and making our daily lives easier; switching on the home heating system while at work, checking the person at your door on your TV with just your voice, making efficient use of energy by switching light bulbs on or off with your shadow and many more. However, attaining ‘smart’ appears to be transient, with periodic updates to these devices. This poses the question of when this ends and can they be really smart or what can smart speakers do?
A smart speaker is an extension of the capability of an ordinary speaker fitted with an organ called a virtual assistant. Wake-up commands such as Alexa or Ok Google, in conjunction with voice commands such as ‘Check weather forecast’ are spoken to the virtual assistant via the microphone of the speaker. The commands are then sent to the cloud through the internet, processed, and the appropriate response sent back.
Boosted by its features that aid convenience and that serve as a good companion in a home, the growth rate of smart speakers adoption has been very rapid. In early 2021, nearly 20 million of the UK population were recorded to have smart speakers. This ownership rate surpassed that of the US where the adoption rate was the highest a year ago.
What actually makes them smart is not the capability they demonstrate individually but the capability to interact with other smart devices intelligently. How far have smart speakers evolved in interacting with other smart devices? How many smart devices can they interact with? Interactions with other smart devices are not hard, as long as smart devices are connected to the internet and with appropriate installation of software on the smart speaker. The limitations to their smartness lie in the availability of commands, that can execute users’ intents – for example, popular intentions of users that demonstrate the interaction between a smart speaker and smart tv will be a voice command – “Alexa, open Netflix”, which is easily done. But can unpopular intentions of users in a voice command – “Alexa, change Tv station to BBC 1” be executed?
Moreso, the number of devices a smart speaker can interact with depends if the device is termed ‘smart’ or putting it appropriately belongs to the Internet of Things group. Subsequently, it depends on the virtual assistant in the smart speaker; Google assistant boasts of being able to interact with over 5,000 smart devices while Amazon Alexa boasts of 12,000 smart devices. This difference favors a brand and also implies compatibility issues; for example, if a user has a Google Home Speaker and then buys a smart device that does not support the Google virtual assistant, the user will not be able to control the device with the Google Home Speaker.
Despite their limitations, Smart speakers relative to ordinary speakers have extended capabilities that make our lives easier. You can use the ‘voice control’ capability to play music or check the weather by just talking to the speaker. Moreover, set up automation if you have routines you adhere to – for example, in the morning, “check my agenda today”, “play the news”, “check today’s weather” and “play music”. They serve as a control module for other smart devices. According to research, having them in a home can help tighten relationships between young children and parents by contributing to social and emotional bonding, leading to further family cohesion.
Moreover, there is high hope that in the near future they can be really smart because of the emergence of many devices that can each perform a limited number of voice commands.