Sunday February 04, 2018

The privacy-first smart speaker taking on the likes of Apple and Amazon

Mark II is shown in the living room displaying the weather

Mark II is shown in the living room displaying the weather (Mycroft AI )

Listen 9:36

Big tech has a problem: the better the technology's functionality, the worse the state of user privacy.  

Recently, there's been an increased concern about privacy (recall the Strava privacy issue) and what tech companies are actually doing with user data.
 

"Our goal is not to market products to you or to sell you things. Our goal is to provide you with the best voice assistant possible and make that voice assistant represent you." - Joshua Montgomery, CEO, Mycroft AI

In an effort to improve their products, tech companies can take advantage of user data to train their machine learning algorithms. But some companies go even further than that. It's been reported that Google and Facebook also monetize their user data to create targeted ads.

Mark II in the kitchen

Mark II in the kitchen (Mycroft AI )

Now there's a company that wants to address users' privacy concerns from the ground up. The Mark II is a smart speaker created by U.S. startup Mycroft AI. The idea is to put user privacy first: the company says it does not collect any user data unless the user specifically opts in.  

A privacy-first smart speaker

By being private-by-default, Mark II aims to set itself apart from other smart speakers in the market, namely Amazon Echo and Google Home, which store user data by default.

Joshua Montgomery, the CEO of Mycroft AI, believes all technology should be private by default, instead of putting the onus on the user.

Joshua Montgomery

Joshua Montgomery is the CEO of Mycroft AI (Mycroft AI )

"We don't keep the queries users send us, we don't have information on how they're using the technology and we don't process any of those queries for information or for targeted advertising," Joshua said.

Mark II is also open source, which means the underlying technology is available to anyone who wants to use it.

How Mark II compares against other smart speakers

"Our goal is not to market products to you or sell you things," Joshua said. "Our goal is to provide you with the best voice assistant possible and make that voice assistant represent you."

Say you want to call a rideshare, Joshua offered as an example. Mark II would refer you to the service that's closest to you and costs the least amount of money. Not whichever company paid them to be the default rideshare provider.

Its open stance also means that all service providers are welcome on its platform, unlike Apple's HomePod, which limits its users to only Apple offerings, Joshua said.

But there are tradeoffs that had to be made for privacy. The Mark II has significantly less user data to train its AI, which affects how many tasks it can do and how well it knows its user.

However, Joshua is optimistic. He says in the future, when machine learning algorithms become more advanced, it'll be able to provide answers to user queries with a lot less data.

The Mark II is scheduled to ship by the end of this year.