Google’s smart home mastermind talks security, A.I., the future of control

family watching tv with google home

Smart speakers are showing up everywhere, even in hotel rooms. In many cases, using voice commands is more convenient than pulling out your phone, and the Google Home or Amazon Echo can make tasks like turning off lights easier for those with mobility issues. But anything with a microphone comes with privacy concerns. Digital Trends asked Mark Spates, Google’s product lead for smart home, about how speakers and other artificial-intelligence-driven products will fit into the smart home.

DT: You mentioned in your 2018 Connections Conference keynote the heated debate about how much of the smart home should be user driven versus automatic. Where do you come down in the debate?

Mark Spates: We believe both are extremely important, and the decision should be driven by the use case and value delivered to the user. As we progress, I think you’ll see more actions becoming automatic, things like lights responding when you enter the room or the thermostat adjusting.

You point out that voice doesn’t solve everything. What else do you see playing a role in the future smart home? Gesture? Proximity sensors?

Mark Spates
Product Lead for Smart Spekaers at Google, Mark Spates

At Google we’re lucky to have teams working on so many different technologies, so it’s safe to say we’re exploring what’s next. While I don’t have anything concrete to share, I think you’ll definitely see things like gestures, proximity, and others.

Google Assistant is coming to devices with screens from other manufacturers. Does Google plan on making its own?

We continue to innovate across the Google Home family and you can expect new devices to join the product family, but nothing specific to share at this point.

Google Assistant can differentiate between users, but what are some future scenarios you see, like changing a response based on a user’s tone?

“You can expect new devices to join the product family.”

The goal of the Google Assistant is to give users the own person version of Google. We believe there are many ways that users will see this vision come to life in the home.

What role do you see these devices playing in safety, like if it overhears that someone is in danger?

Smart speakers can do a lot, and I won’t say that down the line they won’t be able to play a role in safety without a specific query, but currently these devices are here to offer assistance when you specifically request it.

What effect will GDPR (the EU’s new privacy law) have on the smart home?

Users can control their data permissions for their Google Assistant. They can choose whether to turn on Web and App Activity (WAA), Device Information (DI), and/or Voice and Audio Activity (VAA) either through, or while setting up the Assistant for the first time, a user can choose ‘No Thanks’ when prompted to grant these permissions during the setup flow. These are Google-wide account settings and are enabled across Google products, including all Assistant surfaces.

nexus 6p permissions

Turning off data permissions removes functionality dependent on that permission (e.g. personalization such as navigate home/work, call Jane, reminders, play my Spotify playlist, Voice Match, etc). Users can control their permissions in all languages and locales where the Google Assistant has launched.

We have not made any on-device changes to Google Home.

A.I. is still human-driven. You mentioned bringing people in from the outside for some discussions. Is that true for questions about A.I. bias and potential ethical concerns?

Yes, we collaborate with outside researchers and care deeply about developing this technology responsibly.

We collaborate with outside researchers and care deeply about developing this technology responsibly.

Every year we give large grants to over 250 academic research projects, host over 30 visiting faculty, support dozens of PhD students, and host thousands of interns. Many faculty work at Google and then return to academia, such as Dr. Andrew Moore (who built up our Pittsburgh office and is now dean of computer science at CMU). We openly publish our research papers on arXiv and at all the major A.I. conferences so other researchers can build on our work. And we open-sourced TensorFlow, so researchers around the world can collaborate on machine learning projects more easily.

Can you talk a little about the reaction people had to Duplex and how that will affect the project in the future?

The reaction was definitely varied. Duplex isn’t a project that I work on directly so I don’t have anything to share on that subject.


Walmart slashes Google Home prices for Prime Day

Prime Day is a great time to find great deals on Echo devices, but if you use Google for all of your smart home needs, Walmart is offering steep discounts on Google Home, Google Home Mini, and Google Home Max to stay competitive.
Smart Home

How to set up your Google Home device in 10 easy steps

This device can do a whole lot, from playing music to reading the weather to controlling your smart home devices. We break down how to set up your Google Home so that you can get started enjoying all the things this product can do.

Visual snapshots on Google Assistant provides your day at a glance

Google's artificially intelligent bot, Google Assistant, is available on smart home speakers, smart home devices, iOS and Android phones, and it can do a whole lot of work on your behalf. Here are all of its features.
Smart Home

Which is better, the Amazon Echo or the Google Home? We took a look at both

What happens when you compare the Google Home vs the Amazon Echo? Both smart speakers have good qualities, but what happens when you compare they're features side-by-side? We think one of these smart gadgets wins over the other.
Smart Home

Samsung's Bixby speaker may launch in August at a higher-than-expected price

Samsung's reportedly working on Bixby, a speaker to rival Amazon's Echo, Google Home, and Apple'sHomePod. Here's what we know, including the latest and best estimate info on design, specs, price, and launch date.

Fuchsia could eventually replace Android, but it's years away from doing so

Details have emerged about a new operating system Google's developers are working on dubbed Fuchsia OS. Here's everything we know about Google's mysterious new operating system so far.

Only Google should be mad about having to change Android

Google has been hit with a massive fine in a landmark antitrust case in Europe, and has been told to change the way it manages its Android operating system, or face a heavier financial hit.
Smart Home

eBay will give you a free Google Home Mini with any $119 purchase

Google is having a sale, Amazon is having a sale, and now, eBay is having a sale, too. If you're looking for a new smart speaker for your smart home, you can now get a Google Home Mini for free with any purchase of $119 on eBay.
Smart Home

Nest will merge into Google’s home and living room team as CEO steps down

Nests' CEO has stepped down as Marwan Fawaz is reportedly no longer at the helm of the Google-owned smart appliance maker. Nest will now join Google's home and living room products team.

Worried about extra data charges? Here’s how to check your usage on an iPhone

It's common to get a little nervous about nearing data limits. Keep your peace of mind by checking how much data your iPhone is using. Our guide on how to check data usage on an iPhone helps you stay in control.
Product Review

Ring’s Video Doorbell Pro goes on a diet, but doubles the resolution

Porch pirates will think twice when faced with Ring’s Video Doorbell Pro. Packing top tier features into a slim design, the Doorbell Pro is at home beside any front door.
Home Theater

Still wondering why you should buy a smart TV? Here's what you should consider

If you've been living under a rock, you might wonder: What is a smart TV, anyway? Lucky for you stone-dwellers, we've put together a quick-hit guide to teach you everything you need to know about televisions with big brains.
Product Review

Knock, knock. Who's there? The Ring video doorbell shows you on your phone

Along with the door itself, the doorbell is one of the first items most visitors will interact with when entering your home. The Ring Video Doorbell can show you who's at the door, whether they've actually rung the doorbell or not.

How to improve your Android privacy

If you have an Android device and you’re concerned about your privacy, then we have a few tips for you. Learn about the settings you can change to improve your Android privacy and safeguard your personal data.
Smart Home

Amazon Echo devices get steep discounts for Prime Day

In advance of Amazon's biggest sale of the year -- Amazon Prime Day -- some of the company's most popular Alexa-powered smart home devices are getting their prices slashed in a major way.
Smart Home

Smart doorbells and Apple HomeKit are not compatible, at least for now

Doorbells are not coming to Apple HomeKit anytime soon. At least, that seems to be what its Home Accessories listing suggests, now that Apple purged all mentions of HomeKit-enabled doorbells.
Smart Home

Alexa can now have a conversation with members of the deaf community

Abhishek Singh, who first rose to prominence when he built Super Mario Bros in augmented reality, has created a web application that uses a camera to read sign language, and then translates those words into spoken language for an Echo.
Smart Home

Ring and National Night Out partner to make Neighbors app more effective

Your home is only as safe as your neighborhood, and no one understands this better than Ring. To continue on its mission of enhancing safety for everyone, the company launched the Neighbors app, partnering with National Night Out.
Smart Home

A.I.’s humorous side: The funniest things to ask Alexa

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant has a wide repertoire of funny responses, jokes, and hidden replies that you can have fun with. Here are the best funny things to ask Alexa, and examples of what her responses are.

Looking for a deal or job without Craigslist? These are your 6 best alternatives

Whether you are tired of Craigslist or simply looking for more exposure on the dining room table you're trying to sell, here are some more websites like Craigslist that might have what you're looking for.
Smart Home

The Brava Oven uses light – and seemingly magic – to cook. It changes everything.

The creators of the Brava Oven knew that there had to be a better, more efficient way of cooking, and they set out to find it. The Brava, which cooks with light, was born, and their invention will turn everything we know about cooking…
Smart Home

Allergies acting up? The six best air purifiers on the market can offer relief

Indoor air is often more contaminated than the air outside, which can cause an array of health issues over time. Luckily, these five air purifiers can easily rid your home or office of unwanted allergens and contaminants.