Google Assistant Begins Wake Word Sensitivity Control Roll Out
— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) April 21, 2020
Google is beginning to roll out the Google Assistant “hotword sensitivity” control first found embedded in the voice assistant’s software earlier this year, according to a tweet posted by Mishaal Rahman of XDA Developers. The new control will adjust Google Assistant’s voice detection settings with the goal of reducing accidental awakenings.
Based on the screenshots posted by Rahman, the sensitivity setting feature displaying a slider that changes how closely the voice assistant is listening to hear someone say, “Hey Google.” The slider bar sets the default in the middle from least to most sensitive. At the least sensitive, the voice assistant would presumably ignore everything except a direct and enunciated wake up call, while the most sensitive level might be best for when someone can’t speak loudly for whatever reason. The design of the screen suggests each device can have its sensitivity altered individually while still all networked together. Google Assistant-powered smart speakers and smart displays both appear to be options, but smartphones are not likely to include the setting, at least for now. The feature won’t drastically alter how Google Assistant functions. It’s really just a variation on the volume setting, except for what the voice assistant hears instead of people in the room.
Awake by Accident
Though a small upgrade in some ways, the hotword sensitivity control reflects both how sophisticated Google Assistant has become and how that doesn’t mean an end to mistakenly activating the voice assistant. Google isn’t unique in this regard, Around two-thirds of voice assistant users have accidentally awakened a voice assistant over the course of a month, according to a survey from January. How often it happens without anyone noticing is unknown, but presumably would only up the percentages. Dialing down voice assistant sensitivity is the next best thing to not having it on you, as British meteorologist Tomasz Schafernaker might agree after Apple’s Siri voice assistant interrupted and contradicted his weather report on live TV.
The privacy concerns raised by accidental awakenings are also problematic. With so many people currently staying in and working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a smart speaker mistaking a work call for a hotword is almost inevitable. People are already suspicious about where their recordings may end up after the quality control programs run by voice assistant developers including Google came under scrutiny last year. Changing those procedures and making people more aware of how they work may not always be enough to attract and keep voice assistant users. But, limiting how often Google Assistant accidentally eavedrops acknowledges that it is something people care about.