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Samsung and Intel bet big on tech that listens to everything you say

Intel, Samsung, and Telefónica have announced investments in Expect Labs to develop technologies which will be able to listen to and analyze conversations in real time.
April 30, 2013
1984 Telescreen

Intel, Samsung, and Telefónica have become the latest investors in Expect Labs, a startup company that is developing MindMeld, a new technology dubbed “anticipatory computing.”

This isn’t the first time that Expect Labs has received funding from large technology companies, Google Ventures and Silicon Valley investment firm Greylock Partners have both backed the startup company in the past.

The aim of the MindMeld project is to research and develop technologies which will be able to listen to and analyze conversations in real time, producing information as and when needed without the user having to request it. Intel and Samsung clearly want to be at the cutting edge of what they see to be an emerging market of smart computing. Motivation wise, Intel is particularly interested in “sophisticated voice controls” which it could implement in its range of Ultrabooks, and Samsung probably has 101 uses already lined up for such a technology.

It seems like a promising tool for users and targeting advertising alike, but I wonder just how well consumers will react to knowing that they are constantly under surveillance.

I suppose it’s this quote which I found somewhat intriguing and perhaps a little worrisome, whereby Tim Tuttle, co-founder of Expect Labs, describes Samsung’s motivation behind the project:

“Samsung imagines a world not too long from now where there is a flat-screen in every room. You might have a phone or tablet they built on you, but Samsung will also have a screen in your wall or on your refrigerator. They are interested in technology that can use voice commands as an input, that can listen to a conversation and provide answers without needing to be asked.”

Sounds like it’s time to breakout the tin-foil hats.

I jest of course, looking at this more rationally this pretty similar to what Google Now does with location tracking and email reading, but just taking it one step further. There are lots of handy implications; creating grocery lists if you’re fridge overhears that you’re out of milk, or for you TV to suggest a holiday in the sun if it notices you winging to your friend that you need a break from your hectic lifestyle. These technologies will no-doubt be configurable and will likely also respond to various voice commands someone akin to what Google Glass is doing.

However, I do have my concerns about the potential for “always-on” listening, not just relating to privacy, but also to utility. As Tuttle puts it:

“We’re heading quickly toward this world where all of the devices around you will be listening to you,”

He gives an example of a phone conversation with someone about meeting at restaurant down the street; once the call is finished, the phone would display a link to a map for the restaurant on screen. Something he believes would be a “godsend” for carriers like Telefónica.

That’s  quite a useful example, but do we always want computers to constantly be second-guessing what we need? I use Google Search for a reason, because I want to find something out at that particular point in time. Just because I talk about seeing the new Star Trek film doesn’t mean that I want to book tickets at my local cinema right this second.

Don’t misunderstand me, there’s room for this sort of technology to be refined, and it clearly has uses in certain situations. But I’m not convinced, yet, that this sort of constant monitoring technology fulfils a real consumer need and won’t just be an irritant in most situations, but who am I to second guess these technology giants.