Amazon Catches Heat for Alexa’s Dependence on Human Intellect

A. DeCarlo
A. DeCarlo

Summary Bullets:

  • Amazon Alexa is relaying recorded consumer speech for analysis by Amazon staff and contractors for product improvements.
  • There is a simple workaround to turn off the default communications between Alexa and Amazon employees.

Alexa apparently needs a little help from human sources to better decipher user requests. Amazon acknowledged that individual staff and contractors in a number of countries including Romania, India, Costa Rica, and the U.S. each evaluate as many as 1,000 recorded requests to Alexa during their nine-hour shift. The staffers feed notes into software that provides better context to requests, which Amazon said will ultimately produce a better user experience.

While it is no secret that human intervention still plays an important role in artificial intelligence, negative reaction to the reports that Amazon personnel are privy to what are perceived as private moments was swift and widespread. Since Amazon first launched Alexa in 2014, consumers and industry experts have debated whether the merits of the smart speaker’s convenience factor outweigh questions about the potentially invasive nature of a major corporate entity literally listening – and recording – a consumer in their home or business. However, those debates have hardly quelled smart speaker adoption, with nearly a quarter of all households owning at least one of those devices in 2018, according to media research firm Nielsen.

The idea that an individual Amazon staffer is listening to and annotating recordings of a consumer’s voice may make the company’s presence in the home seem that much more invasive to some. But, it is unlikely that it will significantly impact sales of the popular smart speakers.

It is also worth noting that while by default Amazon Alexa users agree to share their recorded speech with Amazon for ongoing product development, there is an option in the product’s settings to turn off that function.

Consumers can take a number of lessons from this, starting with understanding the default settings and workarounds when it comes to sharing personal information. The Amazon Alexa situation underscores a very important point about the extent to which human intervention still plays an important role in artificial intelligence.

On a broader basis, consumers do seem willing to sacrifice some privacy for considerable convenience. Many are fairly blasé about a corporate entity having access to personal data. The human element associated with the Alexa situation may make Amazon’s access to what is perceived as private data more personal and more intrusive. This will most certainly lead to calls for more transparency about how Amazon uses and protects that data. But, how Amazon and other smart speaker suppliers will react when demand continues at pace is an open question.

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