IT’S like Upstairs Downstairs, but with a little plastic box playing the part of Hudson the butler.
The craze for devices in our homes which respond to spoken instructions to carry out tasks has spawned a generation of domestic servants with names like Alexa and Siri. In truth, the craze has so far afflicted manufacturers more than consumers, but so much is invested in these products now that they are almost certainly here to stay, whether we like it or not.
The official buzzphrase is artificial intelligence or AI, but most are really just voice activated remote controls that can interpret what you said and what you meant when you said it.
The latest launch, following that of the second generation of Amazon’s Echo range, is from Google, whose corporate title is also the name of its digital assistant. “OK Google, turn the central heating up and play the Karelia overture by Sibelius,” you are supposed to say to it, at which point it connects to a music streaming service and your boiler to do your bidding.
The Google Home range is also in its second generation now, and its new £50 entry, the Mini, is its answer to Amazon’s similarly priced Echo Dot. A doughnut-shaped device that plugs into the mains and sits on your sideboard, the Mini can recognise the voices of up to six family members, and has a small, built-in speaker suitable for listening to radio programmes.
A $400 version with a much bigger speaker that could replace your hi-fi and which is closer in scale to Apple’s HomePod and the Sonos range, is not being made available in the UK for the time being.
The most innovative device in Google’s new range, and one which really does advance the concept of artificial intelligence, is also awaiting its launch date here. Google Clips is a small camera that you attach to your jacket or leave lying around your house, and which takes all the work out of photography by deciding which pictures and video clips to take and when to take them. It then edits the results and files them away according to date and subject.
Google Clips learns the faces of your family members and even your pets, and is said to be smart enough to work out when any of them is doing something interesting. The pictures and videos are stored on the phone with which you have paired the camera and are said to be private to you.
That’s just as well, because the prospect of a camera that records what it likes and then sends the results to the world’s biggest technology company is rather more Orwellian than intelligent.
The device is expected to cost around £250 when it eventually launches here, and it will, in all probability, be the first of many such smart cameras. Done right, it could be genuinely useful: one of these clipped to your Barbour on a sightseeing trip to a new city would record the highlights automatically while you keep your eyes on the sights and the street map. On the other hand, you might feel that delegating the picture taking to a machine would de-personalise the whole experience.
You’ll know when devices like this have made their way to the mainstream when you turn on the TV and Lord Bellamy says, “OK Google, tell the prime minister I’m indisposed.” Until then, they remain novelty items.