This open-source Echo rival respects your privacy and doesn’t want to sell you anything
Crowdfund of the week: Mycroft Mark II
While a real butler will cost you a fortune in wages, digital assistants are cheap and plentiful – and with names almost as archaic as Jeeves, to boot. Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Siri and Google Assistant all want your business, but there’s a reason the prices are so tempting: each is backed by a massive company very keen to tempt you into its ecosystem for targeted advertising, direct sales or general company revenue.
This week’s crowdfund is different: a smart speaker that has a refreshing desire not to sell at you. Alphr readers, meet Mycroft.
What is Mycroft Mark II?
Mycroft Mark II (shorthanded to Mycroft from now on) is the second edition of a smart speaker, originally crowdfunded back in 2015. The original was based on the same principles, but was packaged in a way only a developer could love. The new Mycroft, on the other hand, is ready for its consumer close-up, and happy to be compared to the Amazon Echo, the Google Home or the Apple HomePod. Unlike the Silicon Valley speakers which have – unfairly or not – been viewed as some as a data-collecting Trojan horse, Mycroft is different. The smart speaker will answer your questions, but it will delete your data from the server as soon as it’s done helping you, and it won’t try to sell you anything in the process.
“For a certain segment of the population, privacy is a huge concern,” Mycroft creator Joshua Montgomery tells me via email. “These users are worried that Big Tech is listening to everything they say and, frankly, they should be worried.
“Consumer Watchdog recently analysed the patents coming out of the tech giants and found that they have a number of patents pending for really intrusive uses for their technologies.”
Interestingly, despite having severe suspicions about Google et al’s long-term motives, the original Mycroft dates back to a time before smart speakers were the next big thing. “We wanted to build a voice assistant for our Makerspace that would let us control lights, play videos and music and basically be Jarvis from Iron Man,” Montgomery explains. “This was before Echo was a thing and when we went looking for a solution we could customise we found… nothing. So we did what hackers and makers do and started to build one of our own.”
The original Mycroft raised $127,520 back in 2015 – some way behind what Mycroft the Second has managed with just over two weeks to go. The new version improves on it in every way, even bundling in an Echo Show-style screen and optional camera for pictures to back up the words.
Montgomery and his team have learned a lot between iterations. “We learned so much,” he says. “First off the microphone is extremely important and it is a truly terrible idea to put it inside the resonating chamber.
“We also learned a lot about manufacturing timelines and the importance of bringing in a contract manufacturer early. Finally, we learned a tonne about international regulations on electronics, taxes, and shipping. The Mark II takes all of these lessons into account and I’m really happy with the result.”
But putting his personal feelings about privacy and advertising to one side, how does Montgomery feel about his rivals from Google and Amazon? “Solid hardware, good sound quality, great execution,” he replies. “Both Amazon and Google are impressive companies with great products, but there is definitely room in the market for an open and independent player who isn’t focused on using the technology to monetise the user.”
This is extra important to him as he doesn’t see AI voice assistants going away anytime soon. “By 2028 it will be difficult to tell if you are talking to a human or a machine,” he predicts.
Why should I care?
Do you want a smart speaker that isn’t collecting personal data on you, and won’t try and sell Disney movies to you? If so, Mycroft is worth a look.
At the very least, being able to wake your smart speaker with whatever word you choose should be appealing. I personally was very disappointed when I discovered I couldn’t wake my Echo by calling it Jeff Bezos.
How much and when would I get it?
If you’re feeling really handy, you can get the Mycroft for $99 (or around £71) – the catch is that you need to build it yourself, and 3D-print the housing. I’d personally rather pay the extra $30 (~£21) and get the fully built speaker. If you want Mycroft to come with a 1080p camera, you’ll need to pay $179 (or around £128) – naturally, the camera lens comes with a mechanical shutter for privacy reasons.
Whichever model you decide to buy, the predicted shipping date is December 2018 – just in time for Christmas.
Is there anything else like Mycroft out there?
Technically, of course, Mycroft is more of a comparison to the Echo Show, thanks to its screen.
There’s no Mycroft Echo Dot style equivalent, but Montgomery did hint at possible plans in that area when I asked. “We do have some plans for an ultra-low-cost smart speaker, but I can’t get into details here. All I can say is that it is awesome, open and we’ll be talking about it sometime in the future.”
What about the open-source world? Well, you can build your own smart speaker using Jasper, but there are no ready-built solutions like Mycroft that I can see.
How risky is backing Mycroft?
As ever with crowdfunding, there is no such thing as a guaranteed product. The end result may not be what’s promised, might never see the light of day, or might disappoint in another way. Only pay what you can afford to lose.
That said, backing Mycroft shouldn’t cause too many sleepless nights. Not only have Montgomery and his team successfully delivered a crowdfunded smart speaker before, but a prototype of the second Mycroft clearly exists and is working – both of which are great signs, as is the open-source community ready to build for the new platform.