Props to Bloomberg for its punchy intro to a report about how Amazon is managing its Alexa voice-assistant platform. “Tens of millions of people use smart speakers and their voice software to play games, find music or trawl for trivia. Millions more are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that someone might be listening. Sometimes, someone is,” it reported. This is about “thousands of people” working on a team within Amazon which “listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands”.
So benign in aim – and an interesting illustration that humans are quite important in the development of this particular strain of artificial intelligence – but also unwelcome news to people who didn’t realise that this was going on. “We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow,” is part of Amazon’s statement in response. But as the headline summary percolates through social networks, we wonder what the impact might be on people who were considering buying their first smart speaker, but are spooked by the ‘listening in’ reports.