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. Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team 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.
Facebook has become the latest company to admit that human contractors listened to recordings of users without their knowledge, a practice the company now says has been "paused". Citing contractors who worked on the project, Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that the company hired people to listen to audio conversations carried out on Facebook Messenger. The practice involved users who had opted in Messenger to have their voice chats transcribed, the company said. The contractors were tasked with re-transcribing the conversations in order to gauge the accuracy of the automatic transcription tool. "Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," a Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian.
Alexa has had a lot of explaining to do. Since Amazon's voice assistant debuted in 2014, the company has convinced millions of people to invite Alexa into their homes. They use it to play music, serve up the news and answer trivia questions. This year, though, the online retailing giant faced a backlash after news broke that human reviewers were sometimes listening to recordings of users' private conversations with Alexa. Those privacy problems will likely cast a shadow on Amazon's annual product launch, which takes place Wednesday in Seattle.
Amazon workers are listening to private and sometimes disturbing voice recordings from Alexa to improve the voice-assistants' understanding of human speech. The company has admitted to its customers that thousands of recordings are being analysed by staff and transcribed before feeding them back into the software. As many as 1,000 clips are reviewed by workers in buildings all over the world, many of which do not bear any obvious indication that they are run by Amazon. Among more sinister content the workers have heard, have been a child screaming for help and two instances were they believed they heard a sexual assault taking place. The revelations once again raise thorny ethical questions over the future of AI smart assistants in the home, how tech companies like Amazon are gathering personal information and just what they are - and should - be doing with it.
After months of revelations that smart speakers get a very human intelligence boost from contractors who transcribe and review customer audio snippets, the mea culpas are flowing in. At the end of August, Apple issued a rare apology about how it had handled human review of audio for Siri. Amazon and Microsoft have made it easier for users to understand how their data might be used and control whether or not it is eligible for review at all. And now Google is joining the fray with a set of privacy announcements about Google Assistant. Google paused human audio review worldwide in July after reports that a contractor was leaking audio snippets in Dutch.