They’re listening....The case for an always on Alexa

We should welcome Amazon’s plans for Alexa to listen to more of what we say.

By Stephen L. Carter June 9, 2019, 6:00 AM PDT

They’re listening.

Amazon’s patent application for an always-on feature for Alexa, its popular voice-activated personal assistant, has raised a lot of concern. “If you’re already freaked out by the privacy implications of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo,” says Gizmodo, “we have some bad news.” A headline in ScienceAlert is even more direct: “Newly Released Amazon Patent Shows Just How Much Creepier Alexa Can Get.” You get the idea.

But the anxiety is much ado about nothing. An Alexa that’s always listening will likely prove more useful than an Alexa that isn’t; and, in any case, always-on devices are certainly our future.

As of January 2019, Amazon had sold more than 100 million devices that include Alexa. That number is certainly dwarfed by the billions of devices that include Siri and Google Assistant. But the difference is, those features come bundled with your smartphone, which has many other uses. When you purchase an Alexa device, you are choosing to invite Amazon into your home to listen to you.

Even those who have no interest in obtaining an Alexa-linked device know how the thing works, if only from Amazon’s flood of television commercials. You say “Alexa, what’s today’s weather?” — and it tells you. Whenever Alexa hears its “wake word,”  the software assumes that the user wants its attention. Thus Alexa “wakes,” listens and processes the words that follow as a command.

The difficulty arises because, in the words of the patent application, a wake word “may not always precede a spoken command, and may sometimes be included in the middle of a spoken command.” The application gives an example: “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by the Rolling Stones.” As currently configured, the system will respond if the user prefaces the request with “Alexa” (that is, “Alexa, play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’”) but not if the wake word comes at the end (that is, “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Alexa”).

Put otherwise, Alexa as currently configured does not match the way people speak. The user must structure each command around a relatively formal grammar. The invention described in the patent application would deformalize the means for addressing the device, thus enabling Alexa to fit more easily and naturally into everyday life.

Here’s Amazon’s solution: Alexa already stores what it hears in a buffer. Under the new configuration, according to the application, once Alexa detects a wake word, “the device will go backwards through the audio in the buffer to determine the start of the utterance that includes the wakeword.” After finding what it scores as the most likely start of the command, Alexa will perform a similar calculation to find the end. The command will then be processed exactly like one that was preceded by the wake word.

It all makes a great deal of sense. Why then the concern? It seems to me that there are two potential issues.

One is a worry about what happens to the information from the audio buffer. Alexa currently retains recordings for a period of time, helping it model the user’s needs and wants. This feature, which can be partially disabled, has already caused privacy problems. Courts have issued subpoenas for Alexa recordings. And as Bloomberg News has reported, human beings at Amazon already listen to much of what Alexa hears, in an effort to improve the algorithm. But no always-on feature was necessary for those recordings to survive.

The second concern might be that an Alexa which listens more closely, responding to natural language commands, will soon become an Alexa that fades into the background. The relative formality with which the device must be addressed serves as a reminder that we are addressing just that — a device. The more casually we can speak, the more casual we will likely be about using it. We might, quite literally, forget that Alexa is there. Only the consumer can decide whether that is a feature or a bug.

Amazon says that it has no current plan to change the way Alexa listens, but bear in mind that the always-on feature can be implemented whether or not it is ever patented. In other words, if the notion of a device that is always awake worries you, the fact that a patent application has been filed shouldn’t cause you to worry more. Any device that listens to you can already be made always-on. (Including, by the way, your smartphone.)

We accept that our laptops and smart televisions are recording the choices we make and sending them we know not where. The only reason we imagine that our spoken words are safe is that speech is an older, more instinctive technology. We still think of speech as special, a distinctively human function, and when we are in spaces we consider private, we consider our voice as something heard only by our most intimate and trusted acquaintances.

But to the computers that now surround us, speech is just another form of data. The various voice-commanded devices of today, whether in our homes, smartphones or cars, work just like keyboards or touchscreens. The only difference is that the human input is a voice. And the only way they can get that input is to listen for it.

So let’s calm down. Yes, it can be fun to imagine a future in which our homes are entirely connected and yet we’re able to keep private everything we want to keep private. But that ship sailed long before Amazon decided to seek a patent on a minor and welcome change to Alexa.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.


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