Jean-Pierre is an elderly, quite eccentric man from a village in the Auvergne region of France. His daughter and mine are about to move in together. When we met recently for the first time, he asked me what I write about. “Technology,” I said.
“I hate technology,” Jean-Pierre said. “I am glad I’ll be dead soon because I won’t have to think about it any more.”
Twenty-four hours later I found myself almost agreeing with him.
I had visited a “smart home of the future” exhibit set up inside Unruly, a digital advertising company based in London. The purpose, explained Simon Gosling, the company’s in-house “futurist”, was to show how connected-home devices such as smart speakers and fridges could help brands acquire data that would allow them to target consumers accurately.
For example, Amazon Echo-type devices in the show apartment helpfully suggested brands to try, based on what they knew about owners’ conversations. So the Samsung fridge not only mentioned that the owners were running out of pesto, but also that Tesco had a deal on Napolina, or whatever. In the bedroom, the mirror was set up to run its eye over its owner and help out with fashion tips and brands, especially ones mentioned in casual conversation. And so on.
At a time when Big Tech is not popular, one would imagine they might be embarrassed about propagandising such tools. Even to a technophile like me, it seems like a template for a dystopian tomorrow.
But in the digital marketing world there is little queasiness about technology that blatantly snoops on consumers in their homes and tries to sell them stuff.
“We see the connected home as the next wave of marketing,” Mr Gosling says. “It’s going to be the most powerful canvas for advertising you’ve ever seen.”
You could hardly fault his honesty. The house that loves shopping — and is crazy about brands — seems to be popular in the marketing world.
“Since May of last year, we’ve had 3,000 [executives] across 300 brands and agencies visiting, up to CEO and CMO level,” says Mr Gosling. “They’ve come from some of the biggest names in banking, FMCG [fast moving consumer goods], automotive, food, groceries, fashion and beauty. Everyone wants a part of this story.”
Everyone would seem to include Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp bought Unruly for £114m in 2015.
Mr Gosling and his colleagues are personable and smart — smarter, indeed, than the technology, which in demonstration after demonstration was distinctly creaky, as well as creepy.
But even if they fix the glitches, will consumers invite what Unruly calls “ambient marketing” into their homes?
Smart speakers are good for a few functions. They are peerless kitchen timers. They are a convenient way of turning on the radio or listening to streamed music. They are good as hands-free calculators.
But tech-heads tell me they are fed up with the smart, or connected, home. I chaired a panel recently in front of young Chinese would-be tech entrepreneurs. When a US speaker from a tech company said he was done with having to use an app or speak to a device just to put the kitchen lights on, the audience cheered. Anecdotal evidence this may be, but I found it compelling.
Apple has joined the smart speaker market with its HomePod. Sales are still rising, and are not expected to flatten until next year. But research so far suggests we are using smart speakers mostly for simple requests and news updates, rather than controlling our homes or — the marketers’ dream — shopping by voice.
But if ambient marketing ever becomes the norm, my smart speakers will be back in their boxes before you can say: “OK, Google.”
Last month, The New York Times reported that Amazon and Google have patent applications for software to monitor owners’ conversations for clues about consumer products we might be interested in.
In one patent application, Amazon described a “voice sniffer algorithm”, which could listen out for words such as “love”, bought” or “dislike”.
This is all getting uncomfortably close to HAL 9000, the intelligent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even now, I am starting to think that if I were discussing something secret or nefarious, I would be sure to do so away from the smart speaker, just as the astronauts in 2001 discussed their plans away from HAL.
The astronauts forgot that HAL had cameras and could lip-read — with catastrophic consequences. The latest generation of smart speakers, ominously perhaps, have cameras as well as microphones.
Amazon and Google maintained their patents were only ideas with no plans for release — “moonshots”, as they are sometimes called in Silicon Valley. But however much brands fancy monitoring us round the clock, I find it hard to imagine even the dumbest people on earth will willingly bug themselves for the benefit of a great egg timer or a fridge that buys food.
I don’t hate technology like Jean-Pierre, but neither do I believe I am wrong in saying ambient marketing is a wrong turn for tech.