If you've ever slept in a hotel, you've no doubt experienced that moment of laziness: You wake up in the middle of the night and wish you could change the room's temperature without having to get out of bed.
Now Amazon plans to make your slothful dream a reality. The company is developing a special version of its Alexa voice assistant for hospitality. In the near future, Marriot hotel rooms will be fitted with their own Echo Alexa devices which can be used to call room service, adjust the lights, play music, or turn on the TV, just by asking it.
This is the future.
Depending on how you feel about such things, it might be a cool or creepy future. But either way, you'll soon be seeing Alexa and other types of voice computing far beyond the home. This expansion also heralds a deeper shift: the rise of ubiquitous computing, in which computing will leave personal devices and just kind of be everywhere. It's likely to be among the single biggest shifts in technology for the years to come.
Voice will probably be the first to spread, however. Beyond hospitality, there are other commercial applications for functions like Alexa. Perhaps most obvious is the car, where voice has the obvious advantage of letting a driver keep her eyes on the road. Even if there is a migration to driverless vehicles, voice still has benefits: It's easier to simply ask an assistant to play a playlist than to find it by scrolling through a list. Already, Alexa and Google Assistant are available in some cars, and their presence and capabilities are bound to increase.
It's convenience that makes voice such a compelling platform, particularly because it conforms to natural speech rather to an interface that users have to learn. As such, you will likely soon see voice control pop up everywhere, from microwaves and refrigerators to airport check-in kiosks and call centers.
It should be noted that this shift to voice isn't merely a technological transition. It's a social one, too, and as such has significant ramifications for employment, human interaction, and more. As with most tech evolutions based on convenience, however, it seems inevitable. The only real question is how it happens.
This brings me back to a bigger inevitability: ubiquitous computing. Consider the fact that Amazon users staying in Marriots will reportedly be able to log into their own accounts via Alexa to access their own music, podcasts, apps, and more. This is beyond voice access. It's a model of computing that moves away from a specific device being “your computer” to something far more ineffable. It's the notion of cloud computing, but personalized, so that what you get is your computer, everywhere.
We've already seen signs of this massive change. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have decoupled media from physical collections or devices. Wherever you are, you just log in and there is your stuff. We also see similar changes in Windows and iOS, which let you easily continue tasks between devices.
And, of course, we've already seen these changes in the Amazon Echo and other home assistants, which connects Alexa to thermostats, TVs, light switches, blinds, and so on. In this case, your assistant isn't so much a thing located in a device, but instead a presence that is simply there. One day soon, biometric identification will probably let your assistant follow you out of the home and into the world, too. Walk up to a kiosk, have your retina scanned, and your information is right there.
This is why there's so much emphasis on voice among the big tech players, and by Amazon specifically. The company knows it's too late to build an operating system to compete with iOS or Android, and it certainly doesn't want another repeat of its Amazon Phone disaster. Instead, it sees voice as the evolution of the operating system.
Obviously, the most pressing concerns here are security and privacy. To move computing fully into the cloud exposes users to both risk and surveillance. Whether or not such a move is desirable from the perspective of individual rights or equality is something that will need to be debated vigorously.
But the aim of tech giants like Amazon is clear: that computing become so ubiquitous you might never have to get out of bed.