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OK Google, Alexa, why can't I choose my own safe, er, wake word?

Hey Cortana: It's all about the syllables

By Kieren McCarthy, 5 Oct 2016

Analysis One of the oddest things about this week's Google hardware launch was to constantly hear the same phrase over and over again from everyone in the same room: "OK Google."

Why? Because the ad giant has chosen that phrase to wake up its digital assistant, whether on the new Pixel phone or the new Google Home. OK Google. OK Google. OK Google. OK Google. Even at a Google event, this was too much Googling.

The same is true of the other voice-controlled systems out there. Amazon's Echo gives you the option of selecting either the word "Amazon" or the default "Alexa" to turn the assistant on. Then you have "Hey Cortana" from Microsoft and "Xbox on" from Xbox, among others.

There is a big problem with this approach, however. First off, you are asking people to recite the name of a company for a product that is supposed to feel personal. Sure, it makes sense for those making it, but not for actual customers. Amazon wisely recognized this when it went for the wake word "Alexa."

But does the mass market really want to say "OK Google" every damn time it wants to use a Google product? The answer is no, like every other piece of technology ever invented, maturity lies in allowing people to personalize.

We raised this with one man in a position to actually make a change: Rishi Chandra, Google's VP of product management.

Chandra gave us the same answer that Amazon gave us when we asked last year if we would be able to change the wake word to our own phrase: no, but maybe in future.

I persisted. At our house, we have an Amazon Echo that answers to the word "Alexa." We also have a friend called Alexis. You can imagine what happens whenever she comes round. And when the Echo imagines you are talking to it but can't make out what you're saying – because you are simply in the middle of a conversation – it will often either inform you it doesn't know what you're asking, or attempt to answer a question you never asked. Every time it happens, it is annoying. And there is nothing to stop it.

We suggest to Chandra that since the word "Google" is often synonymous with searching online, that the Google Home is likely to be constantly mis-triggering in people's homes. He gets the point but argues the inclusion of "OK" at the beginning makes it far less likely.

Choose wisely

And here's where you get to the nuts and bolts of it: choosing a wake word is a little bit of an art: it needs to be short, but a minimum of three syllables; it needs to be easy to say; it needs to have a fairly consistent pronunciation across all different types of people; and it needs to be uncommonly used.

You need at least three syllables so the software can catch on that you're explicitly speaking to it and that it's not just picking up the start of an unrelated word or random noise. Imagine if you made the wake-up word "Tom" and said "tomato" next to your gadget – you may confuse the heck out of it.

Giving consumers the ability to choose their own wake words is a potentially huge headache. Companies would have to effectively guide the choice of a wake word, in a similar way to how we are now constantly told the parameters of the password we must choose: no fewer than six characters; must include a number; can't include the following characters.

When it comes to a wake word, it may seem like a great idea to choose a short, easy word like "Dave." Except then Google or Amazon or whoever will then see an enormous increase in the amount of processing their systems will need to carry out – and all because of the millions of people who go by the name Dave.

Worse still, the systems can themselves be set off. As we saw when an Xbox ad featuring Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul had the actor saying "Xbox on" to tell his game machine to turn on. The result? People's game consoles all around the country started turning on whenever the ad played on their TV.

Just imagine what would happen if the next pop star or reality TV celeb is called Alexa. Amazon's entire product success is dependent on the wider world not using its word. Google is not exactly an uncommon word either. Let's imagine in a few years' time, with millions of Google Homes and Pixel phones around the world, and then during a Presidential Debate, one of the candidates says "OK, Google..." and millions of devices are effectively hijacked.

Trouble ahead

As more of us move to voice-activated devices, and as we tie in smart phones and digital assistants more to other items in our lives and homes, the opportunity for mischief and crime will also jump.

The Echo and Google Home aim to work with smart home devices. It's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to play a recording that unlocks your front door, or reveals personal information. As with default passwords on a router, a default wake word is a security disaster waiting to happen.

But is it as easy as the Googles, Microsofts and Amazons simply adding the option for your own wake word? Sadly, no. Google's Chandra implied that the "OK Google" command is much more embedded into its devices and back-end systems than a simple chosen phrase. "We have built so much around this phrase that it simply makes sense to use that," he explained. He seemed very open to the idea of coming up with future variations, but it's clearly not on the priority list. Nor is it with Amazon or Microsoft.

And that's because, right now, the market remains small enough that it is currently just an occasional inconvenience. However, the issue is that if these companies don't think about this issue now, they are likely to increasingly hardwire their default wake words into systems, which in turn will make it more and more difficult over time to pull it out when it becomes an issue.

Alexa, play Chris Rea The Road to Hell, volume 10. ®

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