You Shouldn’t Fear Amazon’s Alexa
Why paranoia about digital voice assistants is overblown
Star Trek vs. George Orwell’s 1984. No two cultural touchstones better illustrate our diametrically opposed feelings about voice systems.
Star Trek’s always listening, ever-helpful Computer represents the highest ideal of a digital assistant, while Orwell’s Telescreen, with its “Big Brother is watching” messages, was emblematic of our darkest fears. With each passing year and digital assistant breakthrough, we vacillate wildly between these two perspectives.
Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon was employing thousands of humans to comb through utterances and transcribe what we say to Amazon’s Echo-based voice assistant. The revelation broke an unspoken agreement between Amazon and the millions of Echo and Alexa-enabled device owners who assumed that only algorithms, not humans in a back office somewhere, would be analyzing our words for meaning.
Amazon isn’t Big Brother, but its 613,000 employees and $232.89 billion in annual sales revenue puts it at nation-state scale, raising concerns about a company with that much power listening in on our private conversations
Upon learning of this, many of us, myself included, paused to remember those moments when Alexa responded even when we didn’t utter the “Alexa” watchword. What did we say to prompt it, and what was Amazon doing with the information?
In reality, not much. Amazon didn’t deny its use of flesh and blood people to dip into the Alexa conversation stream, plucking words and sentences for its own purpose. However, those purposes were, as Amazon tried to make clear in its official response, more benign than anything Orwell might have imagined: “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.”
It went on to say that those transcribed conversations are not connected to any personally identifiable information.
Amazon has probably…