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Briefing paper

Smart speakers have soared in popularity, with expectations that the number of households using them will grow significantly over the coming year. This developing technology undoubtedly presents exciting opportunities, including making it easier for people to access the online world or control other devices. But public concerns about smart speakers have been expressed. Many of these focus on the seemingly intrusive aspects of the devices and the use of the data captured. Others have raised questions about their longer-term disruptive impact on the consumption of information, user profiling and people’s relationship with technology.

This paper focuses on three areas which pull together the key topics of public concern:

  1. Voice recordings are routinely processed by both machine learning models and human review to improve capabilities of products and drive further innovation. Some such recordings are made when devices wrongly detect the wake-word. Public awareness of this data capture and use appears low and could be better explained to users.
  2. Recordings collected by voice assistants provide platforms with new troves of data which they may potentially use to profile customers in new ways – such as analysis of sentiment or even aspects of mental health. The extent to which this occurs is opaque. Yet the types of insights about users that can be generated from this data are only likely to increase. While such applications could be beneficial, the analysis of voice data to make inferences about individuals must be conducted in a transparent and accountable manner.
  3. Smart speakers present new and engaging ways for people to consume material online. However, a shift away from screen-based content may leave the major platforms in potentially powerful positions, with their devices becoming key gateways to the web. The longer-term impact of this is debatable but regulators need to be aware of it as an emerging issue.
Publication Details
License type:
Open Government Licence v3.0
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