During the second Gulf war, simply out of curiosity, I found myself visiting the website of a giant American mercenary organisation. At the top of its home page I was surprised to see the words ‘online shop’. Thinking I could perhaps order an airstrike, or a fleet of Humvees to collect my daughters from school, I clicked on the link. All that was on offer was a range of brightly coloured beach towels displaying the company’s logo — a giant bear’s pawprint next to the word ‘Blackwater’. Needless to say, I bought two: one in orange and one in pink. In all honesty, I don’t think my wife was entirely thrilled with them that Christmas.
So I’d never claim to be one of the world’s great gift-givers. But this year I can safely recommend a gadget which would make a reliably good present, even — perhaps especially — for the Luddites in your life. At around £25-£30, smart speakers are now absurdly cheap for what they can do.
For the most part, technology doesn’t make a very good surprise present, since people who don’t like it don’t want it, and people who do like it prefer to choose what they buy. But a smart speaker is an exception. It may in fact prove most popular with the very kind of elderly or technophobic recipient who would never consider buying one. You will mostly have seen them promoted as a way to do slightly geeky things such as controlling your home lights using voice commands. This makes them look like a product for weird people. In fact they are equally useful for a range of everyday purposes.
Let me start with a caveat. Some slightly deranged people claim that voice interaction is the future for all technology. It isn’t yet, and may never be. All voice recognition is still flawed, and prone to go ‘a bit Hal’ now and then. I was once driving through London late at night and asked about chemists that were still open, only to be given a list of pharmacies in Atlanta, Georgia. Two of my local rail stations are Otford and Oxted, so voice requests for live train departures are often useless — you get departures from Oxford instead. But because Amazon and Google are fearful that voice might become more and more important, threatening the value of their priceless screen real estate, both companies are desperate to develop voice technology as a defensive ploy. They duly sell these devices for insanely low prices. (As Joseph Schumpeter once observed, sometimes the most innovative companies are paranoid monopolies.)
So the question that matters is not ‘is voice control the future of technology?’ but ‘is a smart speaker worth £25-£30?’ Here the answer is a simple ‘yes’. Other than high-end sherry, it is perhaps the most underpriced item you can buy.
There are more expensive versions, of course, some with more powerful speakers and some with screens, and these may be worthwhile if you are feeling extravagant. But the basic devices — the Amazon Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini — can be connected to existing audio equipment if you want higher quality sound.
Even if the voice interface is flaky, it is undoubtedly worth £30 to be able to ask ‘what is the weather today?’ or ‘set an alarm for ten minutes’ time’ or ‘ask Ocado to add Domestos to my trolley’ or ‘play Haydn on Spotify’ or ‘how long should I cook a chicken for?’ or ‘what’s the traffic like on the M4?’, even when the results aren’t infallible. You can also instruct the device to play almost any radio station in the world, along with most podcasts (including The Spectator’s) and audiobooks.
Voice control may not be the future of technology, but £30 isn’t much to pay for a super-intelligent clock radio. Even if you only use the device for 10 per cent of what it could do, and never try anything fancy such as using it to control your lights, it will still come in handy. And if you give one to someone who already owns one, it won’t matter, since they can find a use in more than one room.
If you own an Amazon Echo already, a useful addition might also be to buy the Amazon Echo Connect for around £35. This links your Echo devices to your home landline. When someone rings you, their name or number is spoken out loud by your Echo speakers, saving you from answering cold calls. In addition, it allows you to make telephone calls through any Echo device by speaking the name or number to be called. It occurs to me that this might be quite a useful safety feature for the elderly, though I wouldn’t necessarily rely on it alone: you might say ‘Alexa, dial 999’ and end up ordering a pizza instead.
In truth, there is almost no connection between how exciting something is when you buy it and how useful it turns out to be over time. I have a cupboard full of things which seemed astonishing at the time that I bought them but which never outlasted their novelty; I have so far resisted buying a drone since I fear it would end up as a nine-day wonder.
What can also happen is that we pay disproportionate attention to what is newly possible with any innovation and become temporarily blind to what was good about the thing it replaces. This is why some technologies rise and then fall. Think of the ceramic hob or the CD. Something similar happened with e-books: we all thought they would replace physical books entirely; instead they seem to have hit their peak in 2014. By contrast, sales of hardbacks, the vinyl of the literary world, are growing fast.
And in the same vein, we sometimes forget how useful boring technological devices can be. By far the best items I bought this year were fairly mundane: a large screen monitor and new cordless telephones. Neither is revolutionary, but both make a difference to one’s life every single day. I would say the same about my smart speaker — it is still in regular use more than a year after I bought it. In fact it has become better over time.
This is one of the unexpected pleasures of owning what are called cloud-connected devices (those where most of the intelligence is on the internet, rather than in the device itself); they improve through use. In fact a million people right now, by asking questions of their smart speakers, are helping to train the whole system to do more. They are thus in that rare category of things which get better the more they are used.