As the number of hearables grows, security, privacy, and legal challenges grow with it

Opinion Hearables are among the tens of billions of IoT devices that will be in use by the end of this decade. That volume means that no matter where you go in the near future, there will be an increasingly good chance that an IoT device will be around to hear what you say.

Hearables can be grouped into two broad categories: stationary devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, and wearables similar in design to a Bluetooth headset or hearing aid. Besides being able to listen, some forthcoming hearables also will have electroencephalography (EEG) technologies that analyze their wearer’s brain waves to identify what she wants or doesn’t want at a particular moment. For example, EEG would enable a hearable to know that its wearer is completely focused on a conversation, so it shouldn’t interrupt by whispering information in her ear.

Many hearables also can record what’s going on around them and then share it, such as by using a built-in cellular or Wi-Fi modem to upload it to the cloud. For example, some hearables can share conversations to enable real-time language translation. Or at the end of each workday, an employer-provided hearable could upload conversations for storage, such as because a law or company policy requires all employee-client interactions to be archived.

These and other capabilities mean that hearables come with a host of regulatory and ethical questions that everyone from businesses to lawmakers to consumers will have to ponder. Many of those questions don’t have easy, clear-cut answers simply because the technologies enable unprecedented use cases. In that respect, hearables are like driverless cars: cutting-edge technologies that are ready for market before regulators and society are ready for them.

Looking for answers in telematics

There’s another vehicular parallel: Regulators, businesses and users can look at how the telematics industry is tackling privacy, security and legality. Telematics is a broad category of IoT devices and applications that enable, for example, fleet owners such as trucking companies to remotely monitor engine conditions to identify problems before they result in breakdowns. Some insurance companies use telematics to offer policies where premiums are based on each person’s driving habits.

When it comes to legal and ethical questions, there is already a lot of overlap between hearables and telematics

Businesses and regulators currently are struggling with questions such as how much driver data should be tracked and whether drivers should have a say in whether that data is shared with a third party. For example, should a ride-sharing company have the right to track its drivers at all times, or only when they’re transporting customers? Either way, should those drivers have the right to block the company from sharing their driving habits with insurance providers? And what happens if a stalker hacks in to find a particular driver’s whereabouts?

These kinds of questions have strikingly similar counterparts in hearables. For example, should employers have the legal right to monitor and record every single workplace interaction? Should hearable vendors be allowed to sell their customers’ conversations to third parties such as research firms?

In fact, when it comes to these types of legal and ethical questions, there’s already a lot of overlap between hearables and telematics. For over a decade, state and federal courts have heard cases where law enforcement used telematics systems such as OnStar to eavesdrop on conversations. The fundamental legal questions in those cases are now being applied to hearables. For example, last year, prosecutors in Arkansas subpoenaed Amazon to release information collected by an Echo device that was in a home where a murder occurred.  

Now imagine a workplace where company policy requires hearables to be listening at all times. If an employee is subject to a criminal investigation, and law enforcement finds out about that policy, it’s a safe bet that a subpoena will follow. This is just one scenario that businesses need to prepare for when deciding whether and how to use hearables.

Finally, there are cultural considerations. For example, in some countries, video surveillance is challenging because a woman can’t be photographed with a man who isn’t her husband. And probabilistic algorithms that determine damage or loss-of-life for driverless cars need to have very different cultural priors. Hearables vendors and businesses that want to use those devices will need to determine whether there are religious and societal norms that limit certain applications.

Despite all the legal and regulatory issues that are part of our hearable future, I think the technology capabilities they bring are well worth delving into and having these philosophical debates. Recent changes in the FDA’s regulatory recommendations for hearing aids and support for over-the-counter hearing devices mean that a future where a single device can give us sensory superpowers, improve our cognitive capacity, help us communicate, and make even the most mundane activities informationally  richer are coming in a not so far future.  The hard part  won’t be knowing how or when we can make use of these new devices, but when not to.

I’ll provide additional insight on this topic at the annual SXSW Conference and Festival, March 10-19, 2017. The session, Hearables and the Age of Mediated Listening, is included in the IEEE Tech for Humanity Series at SXSW.

Editor’s note: You can find out more information about the conference here. Latest from the homepage

Review: Alexa makes the Logi ZeroTouch worth a second look

A recent update for the Logi ZeroTouch added support for Alexa, and we think it’s made the car hands-free kit worth a second look.

When the ZeroTouch was first released it was a fairly standard product without a standout feature to warrant its high price tag. Two models of the mount are on the market – the air vent version has an RRP of $ 59.99 (£49.99) while the dash model is $ 79.99 (£59.99).

An update earlier this month added Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa to ZeroTouch and in doing so delivered the killer feature it needed. Now, when you activate the ZeroTouch using your chosen gesture, you can say “Alexa,” and issue a command in your car as you would an Amazon Echo or similar Alexa-compatible device.

It’s certainly worth a second look if you’ve invested in Alexa at home

The real praise goes to Amazon for turning Alexa into the dominant smart home platform it’s become with a strong developer outreach and simple tools for building “Alexa Skills” to extend what the AI can do. Most of the major consumer IoT devices are compatible with Alexa so you’re able to control them while on-the-move from the comfort of your car.

We’ve tested Alexa on the Logi ZeroTouch to command a Hive smart thermostat to heat up the house on the way home from work, and even turn on Hue lights from the driveway to prevent fumbling around looking for the switch. Both integrations worked flawlessly.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t encountered any issues with Alexa on the ZeroTouch. When asking for the weather, on repeated occasions it provided the weather for Seattle despite being in the UK. Asking more precisely for the weather in Bristol, the response was for the city of the same name in Tennessee. While much nicer weather, it wasn’t the information we hoped for.

Other queries were handled without an issue and even went beyond expectations on some occasions. When asked “What is the latest Manchester United score?”, Alexa responded not only with the score, but also with information about when the next match is. You can see this in action in our video review below:

Beyond the Alexa functionality, the rest of the ZeroTouch’s basic features work great. There’s clear thought which has been put into ensuring interactions are safe while driving and the software has broad compatibility with most popular services including the likes of Deezer and Spotify for music, Yelp and Foursquare for locations, and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for messaging.

You can either choose to activate the ZeroTouch by holding your hand briefly in front of your smartphone or via a wave. These simple gestures allow you to keep an eye on the road and return your hand to the steering wheel quickly. You can ask Logi’s own assistant things like “Read my last Facebook message” or “Send a message to…”, and we’re impressed with how it picked up even the most obscure surnames which posed a problem for some other assistants.

As you would expect, if a message or call is received, the full details are read out and you will be prompted about how you would like to proceed so you can take action while minimising distractions. Whenever you want to cancel a command, you can use the same gesture as you chose to activate ZeroTouch.

Overall, we’re impressed with the Alexa update for ZeroTouch. As of writing, no other device brings such a high degree of functionality into your existing car in this price range. You could buy a fancy new connected car or an expensive Android Auto/CarPlay head unit, but you’d be paying a lot more than ZeroTouch’s asking price.

When Google expands Assistant beyond Pixel smartphones and improves the number of smart home integrations, in theory, all you will need is the purchase of any cheap mount. Right now, however, ZeroTouch feels like it offers significant value for what it can do and it’s certainly worth a second look if you’ve invested in Alexa at home.

Do you think Alexa makes the Logi ZeroTouch more appealing? Let us know in the comments. Latest from the homepage

Avnet and AT&T work together to support IoT development

Avnet, a leading global technology distributor, has entered into an agreement with AT&T to support designers in the development and production of next-generation Internet of Things (IoT) devices with global cellular connection. The agreement allows Avnet to seamlessly integrate AT&T’s cloud application development which is supported by flagship platforms AT&T M2X and AT&T Flow Designer.

Both companies have previously worked together on Cellular IoT Starter Kit and LTE IoT Add-On Kit, and now announced their plans to develop the Avnet Global LTE IoT Starter Kit, which will be powered by AT&T. Scheduled to be released in second quarter of 2017, the Avnet Global LTE IoT Starter Kit offers a complete development environment for sensor-to-cloud applications and services.

The Avnet Global LTE IoT Starter Kit is fully integrated with the AT&T IoT Platform (M2X and Flow), a a cloud-based, fully managed time-series data storage service for network and connected machine-to-machine (M2M) devices and the Industrial IoT.

The starter kit will be outfitted with a global SIM to enable operation in over 25 countries, and will feature a small (79.5 mm x 30 mm) development board build around Wistron NeWeb Corporation (WNC) M18QWG global LTE Cat-4 modem module.

A new set of system peripherals, controllable through the user’s application code, are easily accessible through a 60-pin expansion connector or a 2×6 peripheral module. This will facilitate customisation with application-specific sensors and I/O interfaces through the addition of user-created or off-the-shelf plug-in boards. Latest from the homepage

A day in the life of a smart city: Three ways quality of life can be improved

Many discussions on smart cities revolve around their economic and environmental benefits — but that’s not all this exciting, rapidly growing area of technology can deliver. There are also numerous social benefits for residents of smart cities, and we’ll explore three of them here:

Shorter commutes for residents

A major area where a smart city can improve the quality of life for its’ residents is reducing commute times. Studies in 2014 by Canada’s University of Waterloo revealed a direct link between commute time and well-being, due to a sense of time pressure. Thanks to smart technology, traffic management can become more efficient, improving the happiness of the city’s residents.

This technology is already being developed by Audi, who are making their first steps in vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Using on-board LTE data connections, cars will be able to communicate with smart traffic lights, giving the driver a timer of how long they’ll need to wait for the signal to change right on their dashboard display. This can help drivers prepare for the green light, leading to better traffic flow.

In future, such smart infrastructure could be built more deeply in to vehicles’ systems, such as navigation. Already, navigation apps like Waze allow users to crowdsource traffic data, helping them to avoid traffic jams. But in future, this information could also come from the infrastructure itself, allowing traffic to flow more efficiently. Cities like London are already beginning to capture traffic data to curb congestion.

Higher quality healthcare

By 2050 it’s expected that there will be 1.5 billion people on the planet aged 65 or over. However, a world where 15% of the population are retired will put a huge strain on healthcare. Fortunately, smart technology can help improve the quality of care by making it more efficient.

Smart home monitoring systems, for example, are helping the elderly maintain their independence. A series of sensors fitted to appliances like fridges and kettles, can monitor movement and alerting healthcare providers if something goes wrong.

Italy, which has one of the world’s oldest populations, is developing the Living Safe Project in Bolzano, a city where almost 25% of the population is over 65. The project involves setting up remote monitoring to improve the lives of the city’s elderly, while also achieving 30% cost savings for the local healthcare system.

Speed up infrastructure repairs

When city infrastructure breaks down, it can be very disruptive for residents, as well as being wasteful. For example, not only do leaky pipes waste around 121 litres of water per household, per day in the UK, finding the fault and repairing the leaks means roads have to be dug up, causing extra traffic congestion and noise pollution.

New technology has the potential to speed up the time it takes to identify a leak, pinpointing its position and facilitating rapid fixes. Consumers can already buy water leak sensors in their homes that connect to their Wi-Fi networks to alert them about drips or localised flooding, which is technology that could eventually be scaled up to make water pipes themselves smarter.

There are also other solutions, such as one designed to identify leaky gas pipes. Researchers in Saudi Arabia have devised a robotic system that can rapidly detect leaks by sensing pressure changes where leaks are present.

Not only does this mean that leaks can be identified and fixed faster, resulting in less disruption for residents, it also helps to eliminate the danger of explosions and even global warming. That’s because natural gas is largely made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 more potent than carbon dioxide. Latest from the homepage

HCL’s Sukamal Banerjee: On disrupting power centres and snowball effects in IoT

MWC “Any established organisation creates power centres by creating structure,” says Sukamal Banerjee, CVP & Global Head of IoT WoRKS  at HCL Technologies. “What IoT is doing is questioning those power centres – whenever you try and do something like that in a very established organisation with established structures, it is definitely a big disruption.”

Banerjee was speaking to this correspondent at Mobile World Congress (below), following research the company had put together on not only how enterprises were adopting the Internet of Things, but also how they saw themselves compared to each other.

In this instance, Banerjee argues that through adopting IoT, enterprises are cutting across traditional ‘power centres’, such as manufacturing, procurement, and so on. This came in response to the research point that almost half of the more than 250 respondents – hand-picked by HCL for their seriousness over adoption – said an uncoordinated and siloed approach to IoT had been holding them back.

Banerjee cites General Electric (GE) and its ‘bold, dramatic’ adoption as an example, but understands the element of fear involved for other organisations.

“I think there is the element of technology risk which is playing into it, especially security, there’s no doubt about that, but I think it goes further,” he says. “I think it goes further…to around change management.”

Change management was a topic which came up frequently in the conversation, as well as moving away from the ‘thing’ itself and the promise of data and analytics to processes and people – tenets which HCL firmly believes in. As a result, the top-line statistic from the research, that half of US and European organisations say they are already behind the curve on IoT, was not a surprise.

“People who are actually working with IoT, whether with HCL or one of our enterprise customers, are really aware and excited about its potential,” says Banerjee. “However it’s a very significant change management effort: whenever they’re facing or working on crossing these hurdles, they feel they’re being left behind. A large percentage believes they are not moving fast enough, and that definitely is a very strong feeling.”

Will it get worse before it gets better? “From a perception perspective, yes,” adds Banerjee. “In reality I think progress is happening; it’s probably the people who really are the drivers of it feel they can go faster.”

As IoT technologies can be used in a huge variety of scenarios, HCL is putting significant focus on a smaller number of market verticals it wants to work with. “That helps us develop and drive use cases and business cases which are very specific, where you can very clearly articulate the business value or business outcome for these use cases,” adds Banerjee.

The company’s strategic mission is clearly laid out as a three step ‘define, build, run’ process; a press release from November noted the importance of this in spanning the lifecycle of a typical IoT project. “At a macro level, there are two paths you can go down in terms of IoT adoption,” Banerjee explains. “You can go ‘use case up’, trying to get a business benefit, or you can start ‘big bang’ – I don’t care if there’s a business outcome of this or not, I’m going down this path because I believe in it.”

Naturally, the former would more often be suitable, and Banerjee cites predictive analytics in the aerospace industry as an example of moving away from the ‘thing’. “Predictive analytics has been done, it has improved predictability and scheduling, but the fundamental business parameters which really need to be affected is improvement of the aircraft on the ground – you make money by keeping the aircraft in flight and not on the ground,” says Banerjee. “By being able to predict that your maintenance cycles can be this, versus that is definitely helpful, but it does not help the most important metric.”

Going forward, is there a case to answer that a snowball effect of one industry moving towards IoT and others following in quick succession will occur? Banerjee argues that inside enterprises this is true – going from the plant level to the supply chain, operations, and procurement – but not for everything, as a future HCL report will discuss. “At the process level it is definitely the snowball effect, and it keeps accelerating,” he says.

“At the end of the day, what we have to also understand is we’re not just trying to do the same things better. If you think about how you change business models – those kind of things I don’t think can be left to the snowball effect.” Latest from the homepage